Tuesday, December 26, 2023


Come With Me/And You'll Be/in a World of Re-Imagination
Chocolopalypse Now
Did they need to make another "Willy Wonka" movie? Not really. The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was such a fine confection, a combination of elements so slick and shabby that it far exceeded the sum of its parts. It hit the brain like dopamine, the same reaction as when chocolate melts on your tongue.
And like chocolate, it was a surprise that it was as good as it was, given its meager budget and its less-than-pure beginnings (Originally, envisioned as a marketing tool for a new line of candy, it pretty much had to stand on its own when Quaker Oats, the company making the stuff, had production problems and scrapped the "Wonka" candy line). The book's author, Roald Dahl, is credited with the screenplay, but he didn't really write it—his script was shelved—and David Seltzer wrote the egg-creamy Gene Wilder version. He and director Mel Stuart turned it into a perennial, one of "those" movies—the ones like The Wizard of Oz or The Black Stallion—that you have to show your kids knowing that those movie-memories will be golden, enriching and last a lifetime. Quaker Oats' loss was our gain.
So, there didn't need to be another Willy Wonka movie. In fact, the only reason to make another Willy Wonka movie...is that Wonka is so darned good.
A prequel of sorts to the 1970 film, it follows young Wonka (played by a winsome Timothée Chalamet), new immigrant from wherever, sailing into England (I think, hard to say), full of hopes and dreams, visions of chocolate trifles dancing in his entrepreneurial head. He has a vision, this guy, inspired by his mother (Sally Hawkins, always welcome) of making the sweetest chocolate this side of Loompaland (from which he has absconded their out-sized cacao beans) and with the magical thinking that if he can just establish his choco-shop, it will fulfill his late mother's promise that she would be at his side at the opening to divulge her secret of chocolate-making.
Illiterate, and in shabby clothes with only 20 shillings in his threadbare pocket, he ends up sleeping on a bench, when he is offered accommodations at the rooms of Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis), where the rent is only 1 shilling to be paid by end of next day. Wonka is sure he can sell enough chocolates to pay oodles more, but before he can sign the contract, he is warned by the waif Noodle (Calah Lane) to "read the fine print" But, he can't read, so he signs—not that he would have read the slogan on the wall "Come For a Night, Stay For a Lifetime" if he could.
After a night of making confections, he goes out into the street and with just his brio (and a song), he sells his wares, only to confronted by "The Chocolate Cartel" of Slugworth (Paterson Joseph—he's great!), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) that his chocolates are "...weird." And is told by the Chief of the Police (Keegan-Michael Key) that he cannot sell his chocolates without a shop and without a shop he cannot sell chocolates, so he must cease and desist.
And if that weren't enough of a bad day, he is informed by Scrubbit and Bleacher that he has incurred a debt of 10,000 shillings from his stay and the fine print, and must work it off in their considerable laundry service, alongside past tenants Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and Noodle. Only two days in the city and Wonka is Catch-22'd into no work, no income and no hope (not to mention that when he's able to make chocolate, it is being stolen by someone nefarious that he hasn't been able to catch yet).

What's a Wonka to do?
Well, it's a musical-comedy based on a children's book, so, obviously he has a lot to do. Nobody working on Wonka is doing something world-shaking or revolutionary.
Other than making a darned good movie.
Oh, sure it takes about 20 minutes and a so-so song before it finds it's legs, but right about the time Wonka mentions that one of his chocolates is "salted with the bittersweet tears of a Russian clown" I was fully on-board and the film did not disappoint. In fact, it made this jaded old film-writer laugh out loud several times.
Credit must go to director/co-writer 
Paul King, who may be something of a magician himself. With the two Paddington Bear movies under his belt, he seems to have developed the recipe for making a charming entertainment that appeals to both kids and adults with equal rapture. There was a funny through-line in last year's The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where Nic Cage, in attempting to bond with his millionaire benefactor asks him what his third favorite movie is and the response to his shock is Paddington 2. The Cage character is aghast, but after watching it, is moved to tears and cannot help but agree. I haven't seen the Paddingtons. On the strength of Wonka, they are now on my ever-expanding list of "must-sees."
The cast is uniformly superb. Doubts about Chalamet being a suitable Willy Wonka should be put to rest given the evidence (the reason Chalamet is so ubiquitous in movies these days is that the man's extraordinarily talented). If he's not quite Gene Wilder's sly loony Wonka, consider that this is a prequel when the character is just getting started and hasn't yet come to the point where the pressure of industrial food manufacturing will throw his gears off-slot. If such a movie is made, King might not be the best fit for it, maybe someone a bit more perverse would be in order.
But, for now, for this movie, King has done a masterful job, even finding lovely roles for such British institutions as
Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Grant, who is cast as a perpetually vexing Oompa Loompa, named "Lofty," and does it with such an air of haughty superiority (and no Grant dithering) that he very nearly walks away with the picture. No small feat.
So, if one is putting off going to this one because of rumors on the cranky internet, turn it off and go. Go immediately. And take a child. Get permission, of course.
Where most movies skewing towards a younger audience are as disappointing as biting a hollow chocolate Easter bunny, this one is pleasingly solid.

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