Director – Paul King – 2023 – US – Cert. PG – 112m
Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa when he eventually appears*****
How the youthful Willy Wonka became the world’s most celebrated maker of chocolate – musical based on one of Roald Dahl’s best-known characters is out in UK cinemas on Friday, December 8th
Willy Wonka is familiar to generations of children through both the book in which he first appeared, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and its two film adaptations Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton, 2005). Rather than remake the novel a third time, Warner Bros. have taken the bold step of creating a Willy Wonka origin story. Who was Wonka before he became the innovative and eccentric chocolate factory owner that book and movie audiences know and love? It’s a great idea for a film.
Paul King, who previously breathed cinematic life into another well-known figure from British children’s literature in his two Paddington movies (2017 and 2014), has, together with Paddington 2 co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby, come up with an original story which feels like a Dahl adaptation – although it isn’t. After years of working his passage on a ship – is there another film right there, perhaps entitled Young Wonka? – impoverished, youthful hopeful Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) sails into port on a small steamboat with no more than a handful of sovereigns and a hatful of dreams to his names. And lots of ideas (and recipes) for making chocolate; the most marvellous chocolate you can imagine.
By the end of the day, he’s down to his last sovereign, which he accidentally loses down a drain. Despite this setback, Wonka is nothing if not an optimist and remains determined to succeed in the fulfilment of his dreams. Alas, the city in which he finds himself has other ideas, and the fate set to befall him there is twofold.
On the one hand, his generous nature, which tends to think the best of everyone he meets, falls prey to grasping and scheming landlady Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her assistant Bleacher (Tom Davis) when, despite the warning of their indebted, young serving girl Noodle (Calah Lane), he fails to fully read the lengthy contract for staying at Scrubbit’s rooming house for one night, finding himself effectively sold into slavery in her underground laundry alongside several others she has similarly (if entirely legally) conned: accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), quiet switchboard operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakar), and failed stand-up comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). Their various talents and experience will in due course help Wonka overcome his (and their) adversity.
On the other hand, his plan to buy shop premises and become the best manufacturer and seller of chocolate the world has ever seen runs up against the seemingly immovable object of a corrupt chocolate cartel of Slugworth, Fickelgruber and Prodnose (Paterson Joseph, Matthew Baynton and Matt Lucas) who, together with the equally corrupt Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and priest Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) run a ruthless monopoly of chocolate production and intend to maintain their position. Accountant Crunch temporarily worked for the cartel and has seen both sets of financial books – the doctored one shown to the tax authorities and the real one, kept under lock and key, detailing numerous illegal payments implicating them and their associates.
Also in the mix is an Ooompa Loompa (Hugh Grant) ostracised from his island tribe after Wonka unwittingly stole some rare cocoa beans from their island on this particular Ooompa Loompa’s watch who has no scruples whatsoever about stealing chocolate back from Wonka at every opportunity.
The two writers have a lot of fun with all this on paper, as do the production and costume design teams in the studio, who temper a sumptuous feast for the eyes above ground with passages of Dahlian urban deprivation and poverty below it in Scrubbit’s laundry, not to mentio the city’s underground drainage and sewer system which plays a major part in the plot. There are pleasant enough songs courtesy of The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. The piece really scores when it goes completely over the top, as for instance in the priest’s secret underground lair guarded by 500 chocoholic monks, accessed via an elevator heading downwards from the confessional in his cathedral.
Chalomet makes for a likeable all singing, all dancing lead and the cast of supporting characters is memorable, even if the performances of the actors playing villains are overly caricatured. The film’s greatest asset, however, is a real surprise. Dahl’s book and the two previous Wonka films featured an army of Oompa Loompas, knee-high people from Loompaland, as workers in Wonka’s factory. Taking visual cues from the 1971 film, where the Oompa Loompas were visualised with orange skin and green hair, the new film jettisons the veritable army of Oompa Loompas in favour of just one. In one of the most perfect pieces of casting you’ll ever see, the one Oompa-Loompa is played by Hugh Grant.
Actually, it’s not as simple as that, because by means of current computer special effects technology, said Oompa Loompa comprises Grant’s head seamlessly grafted onto a diminutive, CG animated body with the animation crew doing a brilliant job of realising his body movements.
Grant claimed in a press conference that he hated the whole business, as he had to act within a motion capture rig, presumably so the animators could use his body movements for reference. However much he might disparage his work on the production, the head you see and the performance you experience here is most definitely Grant’s, and his contribution, in collaboration with the animation team who bring his body to life, is the best thing in the film. It’s hard to imagine another actor bringing to the role what he does as the archetypal, grumpy Englishman. Take Grant out of the character, and he wouldn’t work anything like as effectively onscreen as he does.
Sadly, Grant’s Oompa Loompa doesn’t appear for about the first hour of the film, but the moment he comes on, it lifts the proceedings to a whole other level. Without him, the film would merely be a pleasant enough confection – not that there’s anything whatsoever wrong with that. With him, however, whenever he’s on the screen, it’s a real treat.
Wonka is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, December 8th.