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What Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka has in common with Paddington Bear

A director, a worldview, a vibe, and a love of cute hats.

A young man in a purple coat and top hat standing astride amid a bunch of dancers holding open umbrellas that say “Wonka” on them.
A kinder, gentler Wonka (Timothée Chalet, center).
Warner Bros.
Esther Zuckerman is a culture writer who has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Vanity Fair. She is the author of two books, A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends and Beyond the Best Dressed, with a third on the way.

At this point, the Paddington movies are a universally beloved internet phenomenon, adored by children and adults alike. (Well, I don’t know tons of kids who are as obsessed with Paddington as some adults I know, but let’s just go with it.) Back when the first Paddington was gearing up for release, however, that fate didn’t seem predetermined.

One of the first looks at the film turned into a meme that deemed the sweet bear “creepy” and the release date was pushed into January, signaling that the distributor didn’t have the highest hopes for its success. (In another sign of how times have changed: The initial Paddington was distributed in the US by a subsidiary of The Weinstein Company.) But we should have never feared. Paddington was a delight, and Paddington 2 was a masterpiece.

Which brings me to Wonka, the new movie that shares director Paul King with the bear-centric tales. The early buzz on Wonka has ranged from confused to derisive. Why, exactly, do we need a prequel story about Roald Dahl’s somewhat menacing chocolatier from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Is Timothée Chalamet the true heir to Gene Wilder’s legacy? Is this nothing more than “Twonka,” a.k.a. Twink Wonka?

But, like Paddington, Wonka defies expectations. The movie, which is out in theaters December 15, is absolutely charming and, dare I say, extremely Paddington-core. King has infused that same sort of warm, intelligent energy into his tale of an ambitious, kooky sweets purveyor who arrives in a vaguely European town with the hope of opening up a shop, only to have his dreams stifled by a pair of scheming launderers and an evil chocolate cartel. Timothée Chalamet may not be a furry little bear, but his Wonka is akin to Paddington. He’s an oddball optimist who inspires those around him — all except for the naysayers who see his good mood as an imposition.

It’s a worthy bit of holiday entertainment, the kind of movie that hits just right in these winter months. It’s sweet but not too treacly, not quite as perfect as Paddington 2 (what is?) but it does the trick.

What is Wonka about?

The biggest ding against Wonka sight unseen was the problem that no one was clamoring for a Willy Wonka origin story. Wonka’s progenitor, Roald Dahl, is a tricky figure, whose legacy of children’s stories is partially undone by his legacy of virulent antisemitism. At the same time, Wonka as originally written was never a warm and cuddly figure. He’s a mysterious man with a mysterious factory and a penchant for torturing children he believes are badly behaved. In 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder mashed up mischief and menace, playing Wonka like a kind of trickster god, who was, quite, frankly, a little scary.

While Chalamet’s Willy shares a similar fashion sense with Wilder — and there are homages to the 1971 film, including a rendition of the song “Pure Imagination” in Wonka — it’s helpful to look at this version of the character with completely fresh eyes. King and co-writer Simon Farnaby, who also wrote Paddington 2 with the director, have made Willy fresh-faced and naive.

A young man sits at a desk and looks at a one-foot tall orange man with green hair — an Oompa Loompa — under a glass dome atop the desk.
Wonka (Chalamet) and that troublesome Oompa Loompa, Lofty (Hugh Grant).
Warner Bros.

He’s a young sailor who has finally bid farewell to life at sea with “12 silver sovereigns” in his pocket as he seeks to start life anew. By the end of his first song, he has no silver sovereigns but is offered a place to stay at a boarding house/laundry by proprietor Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her menacing partner Bleacher (Tom Davis), who, with their ruddy faces and brash cockney accents, have a hint of the Thenardiers from Les Misérables to them.

All Willy supposedly has to do to get a room is pay a single sovereign the next day and sign a lengthy contract. He does the latter despite the warning from a girl named Noodle (Calah Lane). (Turns out Willy learned to make chocolate from his beloved mother, played by Paddington veteran Sally Hawkins, but not how to read — literally.)

Willy’s decision not to analyze the fine print means he owes a lot more to Scrubbit and Bleacher, who imprison those indebted to them in their laundry. These are a lowly group — portrayed by Jim Carter of Downton Abbey fame and Natasha Rothwell of Insecure and The White Lotus — who sing a sad but funny song about their lives as they “scrub scrub.” Willy refuses to be confined and breaks out to sell his goodies with help from Noodle. There are other obstacles out there, including a consortium of chocolatiers who do not want him ruining their business. Their chocolate empire operates out of a cathedral guarded by a chocoholic priest (Rowan Atkinson, naturally). Meanwhile, a pesky Oompa Loompa named Lofty (Hugh Grant, naturally), keeps stealing Willy’s supplies.

All the while, this is a full-blown musical, with charming if not always memorable original songs by Neil Hannon, and big production numbers. Just like Willy’s new friends, you’re swept up by his optimism, as well as the delicate touches King brings to every scenario. He creates the world so completely that you’re invested in a detail as minute as the love lives of minor characters. Still, Chalamet’s sweet-faced Willy takes center stage.

How is it Paddington-core?

Well, there’s the obvious: King directed it and his style is unmistakable. He even echoes some of his own set pieces, including a church bit from Paddington 2 and a nighttime rooftop sequence from Paddington. He employs some of the same cast members as well, including Hawkins, once again playing a kindly mother figure, and Davis, once again playing a baritone criminal. And then there’s Hugh Grant, whose turn as a dastardly actor in Paddington 2 was the highlight of his latter-day career, now sporting an orange face and green hair as a particularly sassy Oompa Loompa.

But most of all Paddington-core is in Paddington’s spirit, which Willy himself embodies here. As played by Chalamet, who is at his most earnest, Willy is just lightly kooky. He’s mostly sprightly and irrepressibly joyful, a glass-half-full kind of guy who makes treats from giraffe milk and a fly from Mumbai. Like Paddington, this Wonka is an innocent. Sure, with his desire to make a fortune, he’s a bit more of a capitalist than the bear, but even though he’s supposedly seen the world, he seems shocked when anyone’s intentions aren’t pure.

If you’re looking for a film that grapples with the spiky edges of Dahl’s work and his legacy, this is not it. (Watch Wes Anderson’s Netflix shorts for that.) It’s not that there isn’t peril — Willy, after all, is forced into indentured servitude — but whimsy trumps that. It’s like how, in Paddington 2, Paddington is sent to prison only to end up teaching his fellow inmates how to make marmalade. Anything can be softened with the right kind of sweets.

In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, eating one of Willy’s confections has the potential for peril because Willy himself is maniacal. Here, Willy’s goodies are sources of wonderment. Nothing has yet soured his worldview. He hasn’t developed a scheme to suss out good children from bad or gotten himself an army of Oompa Loompa slaves. For now, we can just think of this not as Dahl’s version of Wonka but as Paul King’s. And it’s a sweet treat.

Wonka is playing in theaters.

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