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Film Review: Wonka (PG) By Harry Mount

Arts | By Harry Mount

Timothée Chalamet is a charming, young Willy Wonka. Warner Bros Pictures.

Roald Dahl once said to Kingsley Amis, ‘What you want to do is write a children’s book. That’s where the money is today, believe me.’

‘I couldn’t do it,’ said Amis. ‘I don’t think I enjoyed children’s books much when I was a child myself. I’ve got no feeling for that kind of thing.’

‘Never mind,’ replied Dahl. ‘The little bastards’d swallow it.’

That seam of funny malice was what made Dahl’s books so thrilling – to evil-loving grown-ups, as well as children.

It’s what made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) so enjoyable, too. Dahl disliked the 1971 film version but it was full of deliciously wicked caricatures, like spoilt brat Veruca Salt, fatty Augustus Gloop and TV addict Mike Teavee.

All that delightful malice has been removed from this prequel, Wonka, which as a result falls disappointingly flat.

The premise is a perfectly good one – and Dahl’s stories are so memorable and protean that they could lend themselves brilliantly to sequels and prequels.

The young Willy Wonka, aspiring chocolatier, comes to an alluring town (part Mitteleuropean, classical CGI fantasy, part Oxford) to make his fortune.

But his genius for chocolate creations is stymied by the three confectionery tycoons in town who want to wipe him out. These three baddies are normally brilliant actors: Paterson Joseph (Alan Johnson in Peep Show); Matt Lucas; and Mathew Baynton from Ghosts.

It says something about how dull the script is – and how lacking in inventive nastiness – that even these three can’t lift the film above dud am-dram levels.

Hugh Grant, as a camp, posh Lofty (an original Oompa-Loompa), mines his genius as an effete baddie (see his inspired turn as Jeremy Thorpe) to raise the dialogue above mere plot exposition. Olivia Colman, too, is a pleasure as Dickensian hag-landlady Mrs Scrubbit.

As Willy Wonka, Timothée Chalamet is charming – elegantly elfin and gifted at injecting a natural quality into his lines. But those lines are so pedestrian that even he can’t provide the same sort of otherworldly, slightly creepy magic Gene Wilder provided for Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

The songs in that film – Pure Imagination, The Candy Man and the Oompa-Loompa song – had the benefit of lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. The songs in Wonka, where they don’t copy those earlier ones, are limp show-tune pastiches.

The writers behind Wonka – Simon Farnaby and Paul King (the director, too) – also wrote the sublime Paddington 2. It’s a mystery how they managed to let this children’s film become so slack, bland and comedy-free.

There are more Roald Dahl films in the pipeline. In 2021, Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company for £564m. To make a return on that investment, four short films of Dahl stories by Wes Anderson appeared on Netflix this year. Netflix will also release The Twits in 2025.

Here’s hoping the film of The Twits is laced with dollops of Dahl’s brand of heavenly evil. Otherwise, the little bastards – and we adult bastards, too – just won’t swallow it.

This story was from February 2024 issue. Subscribe Now