Every fan of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) loves the scene where Gene Wilder, as the mystical candy maker, takes his guests on a psychedelic tunnel ride, zooming through the bowels of the Chocolate Factory as he chants a little verse (“There’s no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going…”), getting angrier and more hysterical by the second. Wilder’s Wonka was a sweetheart, but he had a hidden maniacal side. And in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Tim Burton’s majestically wacked 2005 remake, Johnny Depp, then at the apex of his movie stardom, went full Depp, playing Wonka like some louche vampiristic cross between Anna Wintour and Michael Jackson.
But in “Wonka,” the fun, rousing, impeccably staged, jaw-droppingly old-fashioned musical prequel to the legendary Roald Dahl tale, Timothée Chalamet plays the title character as the beaming soul of effervescent goodness. His chocolate passion is there (he’s all but defined by it), but the kinks are gone; so is any trace of a dark side. Willy, a young man of about 25, arrives in London after seven years of sailing around the globe, during which he was scouring obscure lands for the rare delicacies that will give his candy its transcendent tastiness. He’s got his recipes for confections like the hoverchoc, an egg of chocolate with a bug inside that causes you to levitate, and he’s got his look (long purple coat, vest, ascot, rumpled stove-pipe hat). But most of all he’s got his dream: to lift up the world by bringing the wonder of his candy to everyone in it.
To Willy, chocolate is no mere confectionary treat. It’s a religion, something that will elevate you and change your day, your mood, your life. And that belief is incarnated in Chalamet’s deliriously infectious performance. It’s a trick to play someone this keen and innocent and eager and make him magnetically delightful, and Chalamet has the star charisma to bring it off. As Willy, he’s the soul of boyish sweetness, though with a hint of sadness (he misses his late mother, played in flashback by Sally Hawkins, who instilled her love of chocolate-making in him), which expresses itself in the lean and pensive dark-eyebrowed look that keeps cueing us to what he’s thinking. He’s like P.T. Barnum played by the son of Daniel Day-Lewis. Chalamet sings in a pure heartfelt baritone, committing himself to lines like “Put your hand inside your pock-elet, get yourself some Wonka chocolate!” And it isn’t just the character who’s wholesome to within an inch of his life. As a movie, “Wonka” may be the squarest big-scale Hollywood musical in decades.
How square is it? In an era that has given us such visionary next-level musicals as “La La Land,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and the shockingly underrated “The Greatest Showman,” as well as such hip and vibrant Broadway adaptations as “Chicago,” “Hairspray,” “In the Heights,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Les Misérables,” and “Rent,” “Wonka,” as directed and co-written by Paul King (who made the “Paddington” films), plays like a more visually limber version of some singing-and-dancing relic from the late-studio-system era of “Oliver!” (1968) and “Scrooge” (1970). It’s so square it makes “Mary Poppins Returns” look edgy.
Willy has come to London to set up his first chocolate shop, which he plans to do in the Galleries Gourmet, a vast ornate mall that houses the shops of the city’s three reigning — and corrupt — chocolatiers: Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), the group’s unctuous snake-grinned ringleader; the snobbish Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton), who literally gags anytime he hears the words “the poor”; and the pompous Prodnose (Matt Lucas). Willy has all of 12 silver sovereigns to his name, which he uses up in a single day. He knows that as soon as people get a taste of his chocolate, he’ll have the money to open the shop of his dreams. But when our trio of villains get a taste of it, they know they’ll have to shut him down by using the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key), a doofus chocoholic who does their bidding for a vast underground payoff of sweets.
As if this chocolate syndicate weren’t impediment enough, it’s Willy’s fate to land in a rooming house run by Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), a Cockney Dickensian ogre who entraps her patrons with a lifetime contract, imprisoning them in the basement as enslaved workers. Colman and Tom Davis, as Mrs. Scrubbit’s hulking henchman (who becomes her ridiculous silk-kimono-wearing boyfriend), mug and snarl like something out of a suburban road-show production of “Sweeney Todd.” You might have to go back to the Child Catcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) to find musical villains on this level of cornball dastardliness.
Willy, as it happens, is able to slip in and out of captivity by hiding himself in a laundry cart. He organizes the other Scrubbit victims, like the doleful orphan Noodle (Calah Lane) and the beetlebrowed accountant Abacus (Jim Carter), into a team to help him defeat the forces of old-school movie badness. He also confronts a thief who becomes his wild card: an orange-skinned, green-page-boy-haired Oompa-Loompa, played by Hugh Grant with an irresistible sullen aristocratic dash. All of this is solidly enjoyable, as is the film’s lavish backlot Victorian look, and “Wonka,” with any luck, will become the holiday hit that theater owners are now desperate for.
Yet I’d wager that it might have been an even bigger hit had it been a little less sanded off for children, and had it tapped more into the Roald Dahlness of it all (which was there in last year’s lively adaptation of Dahl’s “Matilda”). The movie’s songs, written by Neil Hannon, carry you along, though with more rambunctious energy than rapture — at least until you get to the iconic song reprised from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Pure Imagination,” which does a lovely job of tickling our sweet tooth of nostalgia. “Wonka” makes you feel good, but it never makes you levitate.
From Variety US