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Chock-full of eye candy, Wonka is a sweet work of pure imagination.

Chocopalypse

Noodle and Wonka
Noodle and Wonka

Every once in a great while a movie comes along with so much charm and goodwill, it simply can’t be argued with. Wonka is that kind of movie.

Writer-director Paul King, the mastermind behind the Paddington live-action features, takes Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, as his source for inspiration while telling a wholly new back story to Willy Wonka.

In this incarnation, Willy is a twenty-something dreamer who’s down to his last penny as he enters a fanciful city that’s heavy on a Parisian aesthetic, along with dashes of London, Prague and Amsterdam. And Willy is played by none other than rising superstar Timothee Chalamet, who’s also tackled another literary figure, Paul Atreides, in Dune. Chalamet’s exceptional here with his comical expressions, youthful enthusiasm and even his ability to carry a tune. What’s truly special about this performance is it’s possible to see in Chalamet a glimmer of what is to come with Gene Wilder’s older Wonka.

A Double Huh

Willy sees himself living out his life as a musical. It’s a fantasy in his head that ultimately becomes his reality, which is one of the themes running throughout the story. Follow your dreams.

Every bit as important: never give up. Even — or, perhaps, especially — when society tries to grind you down with messages like “no daydreaming.” Willy gets penalized for daring to dream, but he takes on the system and manages to savor sweet success.

In this case, the system is a nasty cartel of three chocolatiers. King takes this fanciful world to broadly comic levels with the upper-crust chocoholics. They’re well-heeled and brandish colorful names: Slugworth (Paterson Joseph, Timeless), Prodnose (Matt Lucas, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton, Ghosts). They’re in cahoots with the church, offering an extra layer of the sophisticated and the silly. It’s a complex setup involving a confessional, secret levels, super-secret floors and a female guard who hasn’t seen sunlight in ages. Plus, there’s Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson, best known as Mr. Bean), who clumsily attempts to cover for the confectionary mobsters. Could they be the original gobstoppers? Let’s call ‘em “gobsters.”

Wonka takes the musical component a little further and while not every song is a showstopper, it is impossible to resist the swoon of Pure Imagination; there’s a borderline tangible sensation of the entire audience melting in their seats like warmed milk chocolate. And there’s a sense of a sugar-high joy when the Oompa Loompa song makes a welcome return with Hugh Grant of all people as an orange-skinned, green-haired munchkin who’s been ostracized from the Oompa Loompa community.

The Small Print

Wonka is full of eye-popping visuals, beautiful designs and spectacular effects. But what sets this movie apart from so much of what Hollywood is passing off as big-budget spectaculars these days (hello, Marvel) is it all works because every penny of its surprisingly modest $125 million budget is on the screen and put in service to old-school magic and storytelling.

This is about characters. This is about dreaming big. This is about a fundamental desire to make people happy. This reveals Paul King, then, as a real-life Willy Wonka in his own right.

Wonka is a rare feel-good movie at a time when feeling good — about anything — is at a premium.

An Oompa Loompa under glass
An Oompa Loompa under glass

But, of course, it’s not easy for Willy. Not only does he have to contend with the gobsters, he unwittingly sent himself into indentured servitude thanks to Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman, The Favourite). Poor young Willy can’t read the fine print and when presented with a lengthy contract for a night’s boarding, he simply relies on the goodness of others.

What a mistake.

He winds up owing 10,000 sovereigns to be worked off at the not-so-princely rate of one sovereign per day while working in the boarding house’s laundry.

Quiet Up and Listen Down

It’s the kind of curveball life throws a guy that leads to something even better. In Willy’s case, it’s the introduction to a group of fellow woe-begotten budget travelers, including a young girl named Noodle (Calah Lane, Kidding). Her sad, unfortunate mantra is “the greedy beat the needy.”

From a certain point of view, the candy is just the sugar coating to a message that’s surprisingly nutritious for the mind and soul. It involves getting back to what a person was born to be. Whether it’s a master chocolatier making the world’s best chocolate or a phone operator, those specifics aren’t important.

What is important is finding the courage to embrace the unknown and to enjoy the adventure. Adversity in Willy Wonka’s wacky world is of a wholly different variety from the norm, but regardless of what the adversity looks like, when it gets in your way, use pure imagination and change your world.