Perhaps it’s because I adore the original 1971 Willy Wonka film, or because Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation scared the absolute hell out of me (plus, remake fatigue, anyone?) but I had low expectations going into Paul King’s Wonka.

They were unjustified doubts: King is the man behind the charming Paddington movies, which already proves he can take source material for kids and sculpt a vibrant universe that tugs on adult heartstrings too. But it’s natural to feel cynical in our current movie landscape. From the advertising to the casting, and the excessive use of CGI (which is still excessive, regardless of how good the film is), Wonka looked like another fast-buck blockbuster that wanted to chew up our favourite childhood movies and spit them out as dollar bills.

When the credits rolled, though, the cynicism had dissipated and turned into a warmth shared among the applauding, teary-eyed  audience. Remember the feeling you would get as a kid, after being treated to a bar of chocolate by your parents or grandparents and wolfing it down contentedly as though it were hard earned? Yeah, that feeling.

For all the harrowing Oppenheimers, pensive Past Lives, and so much of the intelligent cinema released in 2023; sometimes, it’s fine for a movie to have no other purpose than to make you feel like a child again. 

But Wonka works mainly because King understands what made Roald Dahl and Mel Stuart’s visions of the Willy Wonka universe so great—namely that it should never lose its sense of imagination, whimsy and undertones of terror. He takes just enough inspiration from both of them, while serving us a spoonful of whatever made his Paddington series so sweet and warm.

It’s worth mentioning that like the 1971 original, the film is a musical. And while some of the original numbers drag, we get covers of classic songs from 1971, like ‘Oompa Loompa’ and a spellbound version of ‘Imagine’ that is teased to us with its twinkling open notes all throughout the film. Thankfully, this isn’t a song-every-minute type of musical, and the songs are used as pure spectacle with elaborate dance numbers, instead of ways to tell the story. And unlike its predecessors, this isn’t a retelling of Dahl’s book. King charts the rise of Willy Wonka from a homeless pauper to a successful chocolatier, beginning when Willy arrives in a city with a dream to open a chocolate store of his own. Unfortunately, the seedy ‘chocolate cartel’ made up of the villainous Slugworth (a scene-stealing Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) are standing in his way—with murderous tendencies. Great chocolate is worth killing for, apparently.

Chalamet is a smart studio pick as Wonka, and while there’s nothing wrong with his performance, it’s neither as charismatic as Wilder’s or as bizarre as Depp’s. It is perfect for this Willy Wonka story, which dismisses the darker material from Dahl’s world and prefers to remain in its wholesome comfort zone. Chalamet is like a golden retriever compared to Wilder’s hermit trickster, and so it’s hard to chart the evolution from one to the other (considering the repeated musical numbers, I’m going to assume we’re in the same cinematic universe here—just please, no spin-offs in Oompa Land). But again, there’s nothing wrong with his performance, and it’s bolstered by a strong supporting cast of characters largely played by British comedy stars, as well as impressive newcomers like Calah Lane who we get to know nearly as well as Wonka himself. 

The brisk pacing of the story, as well as the sharp, silly—sometimes unexpectedly profound—dialogue, reminded me of Wes Anderson’s approach to Dahl’s work, especially in Fantastic Mr Fox. A few of the one-note gags, like Keegan-Michael Key’s chocolate-munching corrupt cop and his sudden weight gain, nearly fall into a trap of being repetitive. But there are plenty of quality comedic performances here, particularly Rowan Atkinson’s greedy priest, or Hugh Grant as a sanctimonious, sophisticated Oompa Loompa on a mission to retrieve Wonka’s stolen chocolate. 

For under two hours, King does a great job at building a world around the Willy Wonka story; showing us the one that lives outside of the factory walls. There are pitch-perfect emotional moments and humour, and although Wonka has a largely forgettable narrative, and so-so music numbers…you never forget how a film makes you feel. Because on a cold, dreary December evening, it was a fizzy tonic for my pessimism. It doesn’t matter if you’re eight or thirty-eight; you can’t expect more from a Willy Wonka movie than that.

Wonka is in cinemas from Friday 8th December