Timothee Chalamet rolls out the charm offensive to play a young version of Willy Wonka. His fresh-faced candy man is not at all sour. Instead, he's a bit too sweet and desperately in need of a dash of saltiness.
Earlier movies featuring Roald Dahl’s beloved character, first seen in the 1964 novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," were marked by bad things happening to dastardly kids. But the musically joyous origin tale “Wonka” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters Dec. 15) is a more conventionally wholesome affair.
There’s still plenty of attempted murder. But actual death by chocolate? Not here. Paul King, the British filmmaker behind the pleasantly fuzzy “Paddington” films, is more interested in crafting a heartwarming, comedic ode to dreamers everywhere with catchy songs, slapstick hijinks and a kindly frontman.
After seven years on the seven seas, Willy arrives in a town that houses the famed Galeries Gourmet, the fancy-pants locale where he pinkie-promised his late mom (Sally Hawkins) he’d start a family chocolate shop. But while Willy boasts a magically deep top hat and an inventive Rube Goldberg “travel factory” for creating nifty sweets that make people fly, he has no cash flow. Hawking his goods in public puts him on the radar of the despicable Chocolate Cartel, and Willy also gets swindled by the evil Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis) into working off his hefty debt in a Dickensian underground laundry.
Willy’s spirit isn’t peanut brittle. With the help of kid sidekick Noodle (Calah Lane), Willy hatches a literal pop-up candy-store experience – using storm drains to avoid the cops – and finds success. But the amateur chocolatier ultimately has to choose between helping his friends and realizing his sugary goals.
While it’s a dangerous place to set up a candy business, King’s “Wonka” world is a vibrant and deliciously detailed place to visit that comes alive in musical numbers. Willy and Noodle soar in balloons in the heartfelt “For a Moment”; Chalamet’s main man shows off his wares for the anthemic “A World of Your Own”; and colorful candies like Hair Repair Eclairs and Forty Second Sweets get the spotlight in the jazzy foot stomper “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This."
Those tunes boost a fine but predictable narrative. So does a brilliant turn by the very game (and extremely orange) Hugh Grant as a feisty Ooompa Loompa – they're the pint-sized helpers who assist Gene Wilder's Wonka with his candy empire 1971’s family classic “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," though this one heists young Willy’s chocolates and has a score to settle. (His appearance is one of several callbacks to the earlier film, along with the song "Pure Imagination.")
Wilder remains the gold standard of Wonka-dom. Yet there’s little connective tissue between his mad genius – which featured a snarky edge and a hint of darkness – and Chalamet’s version, who likely would never let a child blow up into a ginormous blueberry. King and Simon Farnaby's screenplay goes all in on a fresh-faced new Wonka that's sorely missing that wickedly mischievous nature.
Chalamet, who would have been miscast as a Wilder stand-in anyway, at least does a good job portraying this Willy's unflappable goodness. (And he's way better in the role than Johnny Depp was in Tim Burton’s odd 2005 redo “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”) Wonka forms a strong connection with Noodle – Chalamet and Lane play well off each other – as they're pitted against a vast array of quirky villains, from a sweet-toothed police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) to a chocoholic cleric (Rowan Atkinson).
Brassier with its music than its story, “Wonka” works as a satisfying, harmless confection.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Wonka' review: Timothée Chalamet offers sweet take on Roald Dahl icon