Film reviews: Wonka | Leave the World Behind | Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
Wonka (PG) ***
Leave the World Behind (15) **
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget (PG) ***
“Is it as good as you remember?” So asks a character towards the end of Wonka, Paddington director Paul King’s prequel to the Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Cueing up star Timothée Chalamet’s performance of the earlier film’s signature showstopper Pure Imagination, the opening notes of which have been layered into the score like musical madeleines, the moment reinforces the film’s nostalgic determination to inspire our own Proustian flashbacks, not so much to the very odd reality of its cult 1971 forebear or its Roald Dahl source novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but rather to some idealised memory of what they were really like.
Where Wilder’s and Dahl’s Wonka was a weirdo – creepy, cruel and crazy, but also memorably magnetic and magical – Chalamet’s is impish and charming and, sadly, a little bit bland. That’s not the fault of Chalamet, who has a nice voice and acquits himself well enough on the many musical numbers (the songs were written by Neil Hannon, of the Divine Comedy). It’s down to the the way the character has been reconfigured. Though we get a sense of his affinity for the “needy over the greedy” – as the film puts it – any hint of the oddball he’ll become has been excised completely in favour of a story intent on coddling audiences and eliminating anything to which the word “problematic” – an umbrella term for any assessment of Dahl’s work in the modern era – can be applied.
That’s an understandable impulse for a lavish (and expensive) Christmas family movie, and there are certainly lovely moments within this origins story that will delight audiences looking for a bit of twinkly seasonal big screen magic. Wonka’s devices for making chocolate, for instance, are wondrous mechanical oddities, full of gears and pistons. They can all be packed away, too, into the suitcase he carries with him as a penniless dreamer newly arrived in pre-war Paris, where his determination to spread chocolate-fuelled joy meets resistance from a chocolate cartel ruled by a trio of toffee-nosed traditionalists (Matt Lucas, Paterson Joseph and Matthew Baynton). A shrunken, orange-skinned Hugh Grant is also fun as Wonka’s Oompah-Loompa nemesis (yes, he gets to sing the song), and though it’s odd that Paris is entirely populated with people with comically thick Cockney and New York accents, it looks properly cinematic, a claim the recent Matilda adaptation was unable to make.
Yet in the film’s relentless efforts to separate not just the art from the artist (Dahl), but the art from the very art it’s consciously evoking (the Gene Wilder film), Wonka, ironically, feels less like a work of pure imagination than a safe and derivative bit of IP brand expansion, with an orphan subplot straight out of Annie and the creative flourishes familiar from King’s unimpeachably great Paddington 2 sweetening the character so much that the film tips into cloying sentimentality.
Revolving around a white middle-class family of New Yorkers whose holiday is disrupted by the Black owners of their rural AirBnB showing up in the middle of the night after a mysterious power outage, novelist Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic thriller Leave the World Behind had a brilliantly squirmy premise that was swiftly squandered on a routine end-of-the world plot filleted from Stephen King door-stoppers like Under the Dome and The Stand. First published during the pandemic, its timeliness nevertheless made it a critical and commercial hit. It also read like a pacy treatment for a movie, even offering its own casting suggestions by likening one of the main characters to Denzel Washington. Now comes that film version, sans Washington, who was cast, but dropped out. In his place is the formidable Mahershala Ali, with Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke rounding out proceedings as the less affluent holidaymakers who have to check their own deeply buried prejudices and suspicions when he shows up with his daughter (Myha’la) out of the blue.
As with the novel, the film quickly loses interest in exploring the awkward racial dynamics in favour of showing how this suddenly isolated group respond to the impending catastrophe. Skimming from Steven Spielberg and M Night Shyamalan, director Sam Esmail (creator of TV’s Mr Robot) throws his camera around in a failed bid to create a mood of destabilising awe at all the strange things happening, most of which are rendered with terrible CGI. What a waste.
Even accounting for the laborious process of making stop-motion animation, 23 years seems like an unusually long time to wait for a sequel. Frustratingly Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is hardly worth it. Having dropped Julia Sawalha for the higher profile Thandiwe Newton, and Zachary Levi for the toxic Mel Gibson, the film rejoins the chicken-freeing poultry couple Ginger and Rocky, now living on an Edenic island after their Great Escape-emulating adventures in the first film. They like the quiet life, but their teenage daughter (voiced by The Last of Us star Bella Ramsay) is restless, having inherited her mother’s rebellious streak. When she goes off in search of adventure and ends up in a sinister modern-day battery farm, her parents must launch a rescue attempt. As with the first film, there are some intriguing ideas explored here and moments of great wit and invention. But like latterday Pixar films, it all seems a little rote. That said, an inspired use of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday is a reminder of what distinguishes Aardman from its international competitors.
Wonka is in cinemas from 8 December. Leave the World Behind streams on Netflix from 8 December. Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is in cinemas from 8 December and streams on Netflix from 15 December