'Wonka' review: Timothée Chalamet becomes a movie star

(NEXSTAR) — It’s been 52 years since Roald Dahl’s iconic chocolatier Willy Wonka first treated audiences to a world of pure imagination, but a new generation of fans are about to meet a new candy man this holiday season.

After a delayed release, “Wonka,” the latest film from “Paddington” director Paul King, is finally out Dec. 15. The musical fantasy stars Timothée Chalamet (“Dune,” “Call Me By Your Name”) as a young Wonka long before the events of Dahl’s 1964 book or its subsequent film adaptations.

Chalamet heads a robust cast of seasoned talent that includes Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water,” “Paddington”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Schmigadoon!”) and Hugh Grant (“Paddington 2,” “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”), just to name a few.

It’s difficult to review “Wonka” without first reviewing its star, as the film — which is successful — is successful thanks in great part to him.

Despite being one the most celebrated young actors today, Chalamet has yet to headline a film like “Wonka.” It’s a big-budget mainstream comedy with a big cast and a broad story — and all of its threads depend on Chalamet holding them together. At just 27, Chalamet is an art and prestige film “It” boy, but until now he hasn’t needed to rely on charm in quite the same way that a “movie star” role like Wonka requires.

wonka poster
“Wonka” theatrical poster (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

The career trajectory of Reese Witherspoon comes to mind while watching “Wonka.”

Prior to her breakthrough role in 2001’s “Legally Blonde,” Witherspoon was not unknown. Despite also having starred in mainstream hits like “Pleasantville” and “Cruel Intentions,” those films saw Witherspoon in ensembles beside more established names. Her performance in Alexander Payne’s darkly comedic “Election” earned major awards recognition, while a role in 2000’s “American Psycho” seemed to hint at Witherspoon’s further pivot into arthouse. But her turn as sorority girl-turned-law student Elle Woods turned the then 25-year old into a bona fide bankable movie star.

Like “Legally Blonde,” “Wonka” asks its star to play absurd with a straight face. And while “Wonka” is miles more absurd, Chalamet rises to the occasion in a film full of cynicism-free whimsy.

Chalamet’s ability to be whimsical was questioned immediately upon casting announcements and continued once the first “Wonka” trailer dropped this summer. Reactions to some of the film’s dialogue — and Chalamet’s delivery — were so popular on sites like X, formerly Twitter, and TikTok, that the KnowYourMeme database even has a “Wonka” (2023) page.

“Hate to say it but Timmy lacks the Whimsy,” wrote one X user back in July, on a post with 148,000 likes and 12,000 reposts. “He is just not a silly little guy. He doesn’t have silly guy energy.”

It’s likely some fans may have just been bristling against a “serious” film darling like Chalamet getting swept up in Hollywood family fare, but Chalamet’s Wonka proves he might just have not had the opportunity to be a “silly guy” until now.

To his performance, the “Dune: Part Two” star brings the manic pixie dream boy energy he’s become beloved for in live interviews. Differentiating himself from the deadpan Gene Wilder Wonka and the Michael Jackson-esque portrayal by Johnny Depp, Chalamet’s Wonka is bright-eyed and lively. Whether extolling the levitation properties of his chocolate or milking a giraffe while singing a show tune, the young star commits to the bit so fully it never feels awkward.

Timothée Chalamet’s Willy Wonka works because the actor doesn’t disappear into the role, instead lending his own charisma and mannerisms to the eccentric character. Accordingly, Chalamet lends the quiet tenderness seen in his first major breakthrough, 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name” to the emotional center of “Wonka.”

The Wonka of King’s film is a fledgling entrepreneur with a big dream — but also with big heartaches over his late mother (Hawkins), who introduced him to chocolate. For Wonka, the success (or failure) of Wonka’s chocolate company is about more than even his love of candy, it’s how he means to keep his mother’s memory alive.

timothee chalamet hugh grant wonka
Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in Warner Bros’ “Wonka” (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Sharing in the film’s emotionality is 14 year-old Calah Lane, who has one prior movie credit, in addition to several television spots. As orphan Noodle, who Wonka vows to help out of indentured servitude (yes, indentured servitude features in “Wonka”), Lane helps land some of the movie’s more heartfelt moments happening amidst other over-the-top scenarios.

One such over-the-top scenario that may unfortunately stand out as a blemish on the otherwise delightful film is a misguided running gag featuring Keegan-Michael Key’s character in an increasingly expanding fat suit. The storyline has already sparked criticism online, with Australian women’s news outlet Mamamia‘s senior entertainment producer Tara Watson writing Tuesday: “The fat suit gag was clearly catered to children, but is this something we want to teach the next generation? That fat people and the way their bodies move and look are a punchline?”

It’s the single misstep in an otherwise kind-hearted film soundtracked with joyously executed musical numbers — which we haven’t even discussed.

“Wonka” features a winning set of original songs written by director King and screenwriter Simon Farby, with music composed by Neil Hannon, frontman of the Irish pop group The Divine Comedy. Though the film does feature the iconic “Pure Imagination,” it also finds its own catchy spiritual successor with “A World of Your Own,” performed by Chalamet and cast.

timothee chalamet wonka umbrellas
Timothée Chalamet in Warner Bros’ “Wonka” (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Though Chalamet fans are familiar with Lil Timmy Tim’s high school raps, “Wonka” marks the star’s first real on-screen singing (he sings briefly and informally in 2019’s “A Rainy Day in New York”). Though none of the songs demand vocal belting, Chalamet’s voice is light and pleasant and achieves what is demanded by the material.

You’ll still likely come out of the theater humming “Pure Imagination,” but the latest batch of Wonka songs are more memorable than some other recently released movie musical tracks.

All-in-all, “Wonka” is a winner for family outings during the next few weeks. Farnaby and King’s script is comically inventive and elevated enough that adults won’t be checking their watches. Kids will enjoy the spectacle and grownups will love visiting a world where problems can be solved with chocolate.

On Wednesday, Lane received a Best Young Actor/Actress nomination from the Critics Choice Awards. Earlier in the week, Chalamet was nominated for a Best Performance in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Golden Globe.

Internationally, the film has already grossed $43.2 million against its $125 million budget, plus marketing costs. “Wonka” is projected to earn $35 million in its domestic opening weekend, which would still leave plenty of room to make up the $250 million it’s estimated to need to earn to be profitable. But with its solid first weekend overseas and good critical word of mouth (currently holding an 84% Tomatometer score across 153 reviews), “Wonka” has a sweet shot at being a holiday hit.

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