Origin prequels have become the Japanese knotweed of Hollywood narrative, with beloved classics squeezed till their IP squeaks – but I never worried about Wonka. Paul King has fine form as a creative rebooter. His smart, sympathetic reimagining of that other British childrens’ classic Paddington suggested that he was a safe pair of hands. So the surprise inside this sugary, insistently heart-warming musical fantasy is that a veritable charm bomb of a movie can be almost as disappointing as an empty corporate cash grab.
Wonka’s endearingly upbeat young-man-seeks-his-fortune tale is very much on the super-sweet side. From the moment that Timothee Chalamet’s quirky, guileless chocolatier arrives singing of his ‘Hat Full of Dreams’, he finds that the camply villainous chocolate cartel of Slugworth, Prodnose and Fickelgruber will block every attempt at selling his magical chocs in their ravishingly pretty Continental city. Co-scripters Simon Farnaby and King then propel him into a wacky scattergun plot which has Wonka racing between indentured servitude in Mrs Scrubbit’s Dickensian laundry, guerilla chocolate-selling raids with his washhouse friends The Scrubbers, and finding the family of his new bestie, Calah Lane’s pleasingly sage orphan Noodle.
However, all these storylines (and Neil Hannon’s cute but forgettable new songs) feel like a selection box containing extracts of other family-friendly hits. Mrs Scrubbit’s laundry (with Olivia Colman’s panto-villainess) reeks strongly of Annie (2014). The trio of villains trope echoes Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), and there’s a distinct feel of The Greatest Showman (2017) in the film’s relentlessly cheery, gorgeously-staged musical numbers.
The pleasure of the original Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) lay in its surprising combo of light and dark, with chocolate jeopardy and blueberry body horror erupting around The Candyman’s magical mystery tour. Rather less arrestingly, Wonka concentrates on providing benevolent bonbons that solve the townspeople’s problems, replacing Dahl’s wild, unsettling transformations with the pallid, Mary Poppins-ish sweetie-borne magic of sudden flight, or an eruption of Dr Seussian facial hair. It’s down to Hugh Grant’s scene-stealing Lofty, a deliciously deadpan Oompa Loompa stalker, to inject some enjoyably world-weary weirdness into things.
A vulnerable and impish Chalamet carries off this new, caring incarnation of Willy Wonka with aplomb, though his light singing voice and diffident dancing mean he’s not enough of a showman to sell the film’s biggest musical numbers. He’s a fine fit for the earnest hero that King has once again placed in a whimsical world, to spread a message of kindness and mutuality. But the recipe doesn’t work this time around. Despite all its sweetness and spectacle, King’s lavishly confected Wonka needed less sugar and a chewier centre.
► Wonka is in UK cinemas now.