NOT MANY of us have ever wondered about the backstory of Willy Wonka, the wizard-like confectioner from Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But the film industry, being what it is, a big-screen prequel was as inevitable as Violet Beauregarde’s decision to try the forbidden chewing gum.
And so, just in time for Christmas, we have Wonka: An unfortunate title, but what else were they going to call it?
The good news is that the film is directed by Paul King, co-written by King and Simon Farnaby, and produced by David Heyman ie. the team behind Paddington 2.
Having made one of the best children’s films of recent times, they were granted the opportunity, and the budget, to do whatever they wanted with Willy Wonka, and they didn’t hold back.
The obvious route would have been to recount how Willy built his factory and persuaded the Oompa-Loompas to staff it, but King and Farnaby have veered off in a direction all their own.
In their hands, Wonka is the tale of how the starry-eyed young Willy (Timothée Chalamet) tries to set up a chocolate shop in a fictional city (sort of British, sort of American, sort of mainland European) in a fictional time period.
But his efforts are opposed by Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), the three businessmen mentioned in Dahl’s novel as the rival sweet makers, who stole Wonka’s recipes.
The film’s funniest characters – thanks to the actors’ gleeful mispronunciation of half of their dialogue – these three slimy snobs bribe a chocoholic police chief (Keegan-Michael Key in a fat suit) to kick the interloper out of town.
But that’s not all.
A remarkable percentage of the running time is taken up by Willy being forced to work in a launderette by two Dickensian grotesques, played by Tom Davis and Olivia Colman.
There are also subplots, in which Willy has to learn to read, borrow a giraffe from a zoo, find the parents of his streetwise sidekick Noodles (Calah Lane), and break into the villains’ lair, which happens to be directly beneath a cathedral.
All of these hijinks are heightened by the brightly coloured stripy costumes, the Heath-Robinson inventions, oodles of Dahl-esque wordplay, and a range of clever Berlin cabaret numbers and Broadway show tunes by Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy.
Wonka is showing at the Bowen Summergarden Theatre during December.