Roald-ing the dice…

The assorted works of Roald Dahl represent some of my earliest childhood reading memories. Post-bedtime, under-the-duvet word guzzling, mini maglite gripped in one hand, a free finger tracing each line of text. These were magical tales of resilient children and adults bullying for sport, fantastic fauna, scheming capitalists, potions, pogswizzlers and whizzpoppers – entire, self-contained worlds raised and razed, conjured, conquered, and crammed Bogtrotter-like into deep cerebral nostalgia pockets.

Wonka director, Paul King is no stranger to dealing with the delicacies of adapting beloved children’s classics from British literature. He’s made two great Paddington movies. But this new project, released in UAE cinemas on December 14 – presents some additional complications.

Paul King on set with Timothée Chalamet

The first is that his muse, Willy Wonka, has already been memorably portrayed by Gene Wilder, in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There was also the 2005, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reboot with Johny Depp, but in terms of everlasting flavour, it’s very much Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-two in the pecking order.

The second challenge was that this is uncharted territory – an origin story of a Roald Dahl character, that wasn’t written by Roald Dahl. How did King engage with this? Is the end product more informed by the books? Or is it a reverse engineering project based on Gene’s iconic performance?

A Wonka on the Wilder side?

Before its release, there were other concerns about the movie, particularly around the casting choice of Timothée Chalamet. He can act, but will he wow as wee Willy Wonka, pre-chocolate-factory?

The answer to that – is largely, yes. Though not in the way his Wilder Wonka wardrobe initially teases. There are elements of what might be construed as an early uncorrupted avatar of the 1971 film’s workplace-negligence-lawsuit-enthusiast. But Chalamet’s Chocolatier feels closer to a literary extrapolation – he’s songful, warm, whimsical, and poetically naiive.

That tone of book-trumping-film bias continues across the production. Save for the teasingly deployed opening dun-dun-duns of Pure Imagination, and a few ‘Good Day Sir’ nods, almost everything else (look at the character names and their respective characterisations) feels like a meticulously researched aggregate of Dahlian thought.

Even the song and dance numbers ring Roald (for which music maestro, Neil Hannon absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination) though they of course, played no part in the source material. His assimilated penmanship is everywhere, from The Twits/Trunchbull-esque pairing of Olivia Colman as Mrs. Scrubbit and Tom Davis’ Bleacher (who steal every scene they’re part of) to the deftly spun call-backstory of Slugworth (Paterson Joseph). We’re gifted a Matilda figure in Calah Lane’s Noodle, a chocolate box non-specific European city backdrop, a squishously capricious Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and ‘allsorts’ of magical, marvelous, fantastically farcical, damn-it-if-it’s-not-Dahl mayhem.

Life is like a box of chocolates

The film opens with the conclusion of Wonka’s nautical expeditions. He’s travelled the world learning the secret wisdom of closed-book confectionary. It’s time to put his dreams of a chocolate empire, inspired by his dearly departed mother, into action.

Monopolised markets abhor an upstart, and so his entrepreneurial efforts are hamstrung by a cabal of rival candy magnates, and Wonka finds himself forced out of the race before he’s begun. Even for a man who always sees the box of Quality Street half-full, when he looks down, he finds it’s just a mix of empty wrappers and coconut creams.

Worse though. Following a terms and conditions oversight of U2-album-on-iPhone proportions (another film callback for the fans), our protagonist ends up locked into indentured servitude with little hope of escape.

A little hope goes a long way

Speaking of little, I really have to make a slight discursive detour to mention the immensely important inclusion of Hugh Grant as a curmudgeonly Oompa-Loompa. I’m not going to spoil it for you, I’m just glad it happened (even if he reportedly isn’t).


The studio certainly picked the right release window. It’s not a Christmas movie, but it might as well be. It’s full of festive family feel-good energy. So if you’re only booking one cinema outing with the kids this season, go and Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-see it.

Wonka is out in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, December 14.

Images: Provided