For a film critic, one of the hardest things to do is review children’s movies. At the end of the day—barring outliers like Soul—these films are not geared or even made for people over the age of 10. That isn’t to say kid’s movies can’t be enjoyed by teenagers, young adults, or older people, nor does it mean we should completely excuse poorly made ones solely based on their intention of making a movie for children. It’s merely to remember that not all these films will be as transcendent as Toy Story or Wonka director Paul King’s duology of Paddington movies.
Which is completely fine. There is no point getting up in arms about a movie clearly made for children not meeting your expectations, especially one like Wonka. Sure, there are devoted fans of the Gene Wilder classic but, for the most part, this is not an intellectual property that would be considered blasphemous to remake. I like that they tried to reinvent the character. I like that they made a fascinating decision to cast rising star Timothèe Chalamet as the titular chocolate maker. I love that they decided to have King helm this movie.
And it doesn’t completely come together. I have to reiterate, that is totally fine. Wonka is not a dumpster fire nor is it the best movie of the year. Parts of it work and a good chunk of it doesn’t. But, at some point, you have to realize that someone like me is not the target audience for this product and it succeeds in being a perfectly acceptable movie for parents to take their children to. Horrible movies like Pain Hustlers and Five Nights at Freddy’s made me furious at their existence. I’m largely neutral about Wonka’s existence. Many people will love it, others will abhor it—I thought it was perfectly average.
A young Willy Wonka (Timothèe Chalamet) tries to make a name for himself as the world’s best chocolate maker against the existing evil chocolate cartel. He gets tricked into immense debt by the mischievous Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and must work with orphan Noodle (Calah Lane) and other victims of Mrs. Scrubbit’s scheme to get his chocolate to the world and pay off all their debts.
As a huge fan of the Paddington movies, I was slightly disheartened to see King not being able to reach those heights with Wonka. Both of his earlier movies had so much heart and they wore that warmth and emotion proudly on their sleeves. Thinking about the final minutes of Paddington 2 still makes me almost well up and Wonka is in search of a strong emotional core. I couldn’t seamlessly invest in Willy’s story as I could for Paddington. If anything happened to Paddington Bear, I would literally go to war. The same can’t be said for Willy, truthfully speaking.
There are glimmers of a faintly beating heart in Wonka, mostly in Willy’s backstory with his mother, played by Sally Hawkins. The great Hawkins is in only two scenes, which happen to be the best scenes in the movie because they made me feel something. You can clearly see the Paddington DNA in these portions and one can’t help but wonder why King didn’t lean into this for all of Wonka. King has this inherent talent to create these wholesome moments without feelings overtly schmaltzy or corny and not enough of that talent is on display here.
I do wonder how much of King’s inability to recreate the Paddington magic is due to Wonka being a musical. I’ve written for almost 600 words and this is the first instance of me uttering the fact that this film is a full-blown musical, just like the marketing of the movie which has avoided featuring any music from it. This should tell you enough about how “well” the musical aspect works in Wonka—spoiler alert, it does not. I have no idea why this is a movie musical, it has no reason to be one.
The first thing all musicals need to have is good music. It brings me no joy—as a big movie musical fan—that not a single song from Wonka registers as memorable. I had trouble recalling the names of the songs, let alone the melodies, verses, and purpose of them. Everything outside the music ranges from decent to quite effective but the musical portions are downright tedious. I wish King had made the crux of the movie about the mother-son relationship between Willy and his mom rather than the odd debt plot we got with music interspersed.
It doesn’t help that Chalamet’s singing voice doesn’t completely land. I really like that he tried and, to his credit, he puts in 100% in every scene. I quite liked his eccentric and kooky take on Wonka (leagues better than Johnny Depp’s), but he seems uncomfortable singing. Some of his line deliveries are pretty outstanding and, again, Wonka should have been 100 minutes of Chalamet being weird with zero songs.
The rest of the star cast, likewise, is having a blast and King continues his trend of getting some truly fun performances from the supporting actors. Hugh Grant is a hoot in Paddington 2 and his Oompa Loompa in Wonka was a highlight for me. I found myself laughing at everything he said and needed so much more of him in the movie. Colman seems to be having a great time, hamming it up—in a good way—as one of the many over-the-top villains.
Another aspect King recreates for Wonka from the Paddington franchise is the whimsical production design and costuming. The sets are colorful and lively as are the bright and shiny costumes. Even with a CGI stuffed bear as the ostensible lead, the Paddington franchise had much better use of CGI whereas Wonka seems more reliant on and some of it looks quite poor.
Even with its shortcomings, I’d be pressed to find a child who isn’t entertained and engrossed by Wonka because that is who this movie is for. I’m not mad it didn’t work for me, altogether. Do I wish it was better? Of course. Do I wish it was closer to the quality of Paddington 1 and 2? You bet I do. Am I going to lose sleep over Wonka being completely mediocre? Not at all. There is stuff to like here and some stuff not to like. It serves its purpose in being a children’s movie and it is a fine one.
Wonka is like eating a Hershey’s chocolate bar. There are better chocolate bars out there and there are worse ones too—this one is right down the middle.