Review: Wonka offers semi-satisfying holiday entertainment

Timothée Chalamet in Wonka (Warner Bros.)

“Wonka” is the all-new, insanely sweet origin story of Roald Dahl’s legendary chocolatier Willy Wonka from his 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as well as a precursor of sorts to the wonderfully weird 1971 film adaptation of the work “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” just without the sarcastically bitter-sweet aftertaste.

Director Paul King’s prequel is all saccharine, boasting a similar tone and humor to his wonderful “Paddington” films from 2014 and 2017, but while this film is enjoyable taken on its own, the musical lacks the bite of Dahl’s character from the novel or the original adaptation in which Gene Wilder first brought Willy Wonka to life on the big screen.

This film basically ignores 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which starred Johnny Depp as the odd candy-maker in a much less satisfying adaptation of Dahl’s work than the 1971 version.

The acerbic undertone of Wilder’s nuanced and satirical take on Wonka is missed in this version. Academy Award-nominated lead Timothee Chalamet’s work is candy-coated with little to no sour offered as a counterbalance in the script by King and his writing partner Simon Farnaby.

What worked so well in their scripts for the Paddington films is slightly out of kilter here, somewhat like Chalamet’s singing voice. So, maybe, it works?

Chalamet otherwise gives a charming performance, and his singing voice isn’t terrible, but asking him to lead a musical was a stretch. There are scores of actors working in musical theater who could have delivered a better singing performance for this material, but none have Chalamet’s Hollywood star power or bankability.

One just wonders if his talent will be wasted on the kiddie set? Maybe he was cast to keep the moms happy?

This musical might have worked better without Wonka’s songs, or maybe if another character had been drafted to deliver them.

Otherwise the movie is fun with a Dickensian-type plot and an a terrifically talented cast, including Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Keegan-Michale Key, Rowan Atkinson, and Natasha Rothwell, who all have their moments, particularly Grant as Lofty, the orange-skinned, green-haired, and digitally shrunk Oompa-Loompa. Key also has a nice bit as the Chief-of-Police with a sweet tooth and an ever-expanding girth.

Calah Lane and Timothée Chalamet in Wonka (Warner Bros.)

Calah Lane is endearing as Noodle, a young orphan girl who becomes Wonka’s assistant, confidant and even teacher. Chalamet’s charm does show through as Wonka, even if he was cast more for his name with this project. He and Lane have a nice chemistry together as friends and confidants.

Overall, I did enjoy most of the movie, although a tighter cut with 15 minutes snipped from here and there would have been appreciated. The film is a children’s movie, but it certainly can be enjoyed by lighthearted adults who don’t go into it with the anticipation of the satire explored in Dahl’s novel or Wilder’s 1971 version.

That expectation probably colored my opinion too much.

While this review likely doesn’t help, going into the movie without expectations based on the novel or the Wilder version is probably best.

The film is gorgeously shot by King with the aid of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. The colors are brilliant, the staging is excellent, and the musical numbers mostly go over well despite Chalamet’s voice limitations.

My expectations left me personally disappointed in the movie, but the film King crafted is a fun piece of holiday entertainment that is sure to be a hit for families seeking a movie safe for all its members.

(PG) 1 hr. 56 min.
Grade: B-

New in Local Theaters – Dec. 15, 2023

  • Wonka (PG) 1 hr. 56 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Towne, Malco Pinnacle Skylight
  • Maestro (R) 2 hr. 9 min. (trailer)
    Malco Razorback

Classic Corner – TCM’s Merry Movie Marathon (Dec. 17-25)

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dorothy Andre in Meet John Doe (Frank Capra Productions)

Turner Classic Movies is my default channel if I feel like watching TV but am not looking for anything in particular. More often than not there is something that’s worth my time or at least being the background noise while I’m doing other things.

That’s certainly the case beginning at 7 p.m. Central Time on Sunday and running through Christmas Day as the channel dedicates its air space to movies that are either all about Christmas or at least have scenes set around the holiday.

» See the complete listing of films that will be shown

The times are Eastern, so locally the movies will air one hour earlier than listed.

I’ve seen many of the movies that will be playing previously, but I plan to knock out several of the ones I have yet to see, and, of course, rewatch a few of my favorites on the list. Here’s three I’ve seen that are on my Christmas rotation to watch again this year.

Meet John Doe

I’m conflicted whether I consider director Frank Capra’s 1941 classic “Meet John Doe” a true “Christmas movie” or not.

The film’s climax does take place on Christmas eve/morning, and much of its ethos concerns the brotherhood of mankind, which we celebrate on and around Christmas each year.

However, the movie has a darkness to it that can’t be denied. It’s this looming shadow that lifts the film beyond the ordinary.

It’s a great film, and if you’ve never seen it, it plays at 3 p.m. CT Tuesday and 1:15 a.m. CT Friday on Turner Classic Movies as part of the aforementioned Christmas-film marathon.

Sometimes the message is better than the man behind it. And sometimes belief in a message can transform the persons who believe in it, even if initially they aren’t altogether honest. That’s the message I get from this Capra dramedy.

Stars Gary Cooper as tramp John Willoughby/John Doe and Barbara Stanwyck as conniving newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell power the film, while Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, James Gleason, and Gene Lockhart provide excellent support.

Laid off from her job during the heart of the Great Depression with one final article to write, Stanwyck’s character opts to spin a heart-wrenching yarn about a fictional unemployed man “John Doe,” who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills.

Stanwyck’s letter creates a sensation, prompting her editor Henry Connell (Gleason) to grill her on just exactly who this John Doe is. Under pressure for more on “John Doe,” Connell rehires Mitchell to craft more tall tales.

When the public demands a personal appearance by John Doe, the paper hires Cooper’s Willoughby to play the role, which at first comes naturally to the down-on-his-luck former baseball pitcher.

Breenan, Willoughby’s traveling companion “The Colonel,” warns Cooper to not step into the trap, but the money and the opportunity to be around the alluring Stanwyck are just too great for Cooper to resist.

The John Doe campaign with its motto “Be a Better Neighbor” spirals into mass popularity after Cooper delivers a speech written by Stanwyck, but Cooper becomes conflicted when he learns the newspaper’s publisher (Arnold) seeks to ride Doe’s populist wave into a national political office.

While funny and charming, the film — much like Capra’s 1947 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — has dark undertones, examining how desperate times tempts good people into making poor or even immoral decisions.

Though the movie turned 82 years old this year, the questions it poses are as prescient today as the were when Capra committed them to film just as the U.S. was pulling out of the Great Depression and on the cusp of entering World War II.

Christmas in Connecticut

Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Her versatility and likability stood out during a four-decade career on the big screen and two more on television in a number of shows and mini series, including one of the better television Westerns of the 1960s “The Big Valley.”

Stanwyck was a huge star, appearing in more than 85 films and earning four Academy Award nominations for best actress in “Stella Dallas” (1937), “Ball of Fire” (1941), “Double Indemnity” (1944), and “Sorry, Wrong Number“ (1948). She received an honorary Oscar for her lifetime contribution to film in 1982 and won a Golden Globe for her role in the 1983 miniseries “The Thornbirds.”

I first began to appreciate Stanwyck’s work in a couple of Christmas comedies, “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) co-starring Dennis Morgan and “Remember the Night” (1940) co-starring Fred MacMurray, who played opposite of her in “Double Indemnity,” perhaps both’s best film.

TCM airs them as a double feature, starting at 5 p.m. CT Wednesday. Both are funny and romantic. They basically set the template for all the Hallmark and Lifetime romantic comedies that run 24/7 during the holiday season.

“Christmas in Connecticut” is a riot, and my favorite of the two. Stanwyck plays a columnist for “Smart Housekeeping” magazine during World War II, but she is a fraud.

Instead of being the model homemaker she purports to be in her columns, she’s actually a single, city girl who has passed herself off as a wife with a child, and a farm.

When her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) proposes or rather demands that she entertain him and war hero (Dennis Morgan) at her farm for an old-fashioned Christmas, Stanwyck must rely on her wits and friends to bail her out of the impossible situation.

Remember the Night

In “Remember the Night,” MacMurray plays a district attorney who is prosecuting Stanwyck’s character for shoplifting around Christmas.

When the trial is continued until after the holiday, MacMurray is cajoled into taking custody of Stanwyck so she doesn’t have to spend Christmas in the clink. He intends to drop her off at her mother’s, but winds up taking her to his family home for the holidays.