‘Wonka’: Building a world of imagination

Posted December 15, 2023


“Wonka,” directed by Paul King, reveals the origin story of a young, innovative Willy Wonka. It reveals how Wonka used his curiosity, imagination, wit, and charm to launch his iconic chocolate enterprise.

Actor Timothee Chalamet as Willy Wonka in Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “Wonka,” a Warner Brothers Pictures release (Photo by Jaap Buittendijk, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Last week, the South Florida Arts News and Review group was invited by Warner Bros. Pictures to preview the film and participate in a roundtable interview with “Wonka” leading actors Timothee Chalamet and Keegan-Michael Key. The roundtable was a select panel of 11 journalists from colleges across the country.

Chalamet took on the leading role as a young Willy Wonka. Keegan-Michael Key is the chief of police, who is one of Wonka’s many enemies in the film.  

During the round table, the actors explained that the film pays homage to the 1971 film, starring Gene Wilder. However, “Wonka” is a completely different narrative from the nostalgic chocolate factory movies.

“It’s not the story of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’” said Chalamet. “It’s an original story… this young Willy Wonka sees [the world] just full of possibility and loves humans, and humanity, and characteristics of people… This Willy Wonka hasn’t had a worldview made cynical by his experience yet. He’s just totally full of hopes and dreams.”

In this film, Wonka is an inventor, a magician, and a chocolate-maker. He has just finished traveling the world and is ready to settle down to buy his first chocolate shop. The film takes the audience through the hectic journey of troubles and trials Wonka faced while opening his shop, and the bounty of friends who helped him along the way. 

Mathew Baynton (from left) as Fickelgruber, Matt Lucas as Prodnose, Keegan-Michael Key as the chief of police, and Paterson Joseph as Slugworth in “Wonka” (Photo by Jaap Buittendijk, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Some characters in “Wonka” derive from Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Others, like Key’s character, are brand new. The actors found that this challenge was difficult but exciting.

“There’s a backstory that you have to put together,” said Key. “It gives you an opportunity to start to build this mosaic of the full character. That was a delightful challenge to be able to kind of figure out who I am and where I’m coming from.”

Chalamet faced a similar challenge. Even though so many of us know who Willy Wonka is, none of us know his back story. Chalamet had to build his character based on the script and what he already knew about Wonka from the book and films.

“He still has that Willy Wonka quality of mystery of not really knowing where he’s coming from,” said Chalamet. “Every other role I’ve worked on you want to have an answer to every [background] question. Here, it felt acceptable, and in fact beneficial…  for that mystique to remain intact.”

Timothee Chalamet as Willy Wonka and director Paul King on the set of “Wonka” (Photo by Jaap Buittendijk, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Because the film is a new story, Chalamet said that he felt like it was more important to do his own thing with his character. But on the other hand, he felt pressure to uphold Willy Wonka’s positive reputation.

“This movie was so important to my family, my grandmother, and my mother, growing up,” said Chalamet. “It felt heartwarming in the moment to be revisiting such cherished material, but also a certain pressure to not to not [mess] it up.”

Key is no stranger to the movie musical, but this film was a new challenge for Chalamet. Chalamet said he had not acted in a musical since high school, and even then, it was on stage. It was not on a silver screen.

“It was so physically challenging and it was every scene,” said Chalamet. “There is the enthusiasm of the character, coupled with the fact that there isn’t a scene that’s really static.”  

“Wonka” has many musical numbers, including six new songs. The movie also includes two classics– “Pure Imagination” and the catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head tune, the “Oompa Loompa” theme.

“I had a lot of singing and vocal training,” said Chalamet. “There was a lot of dance training too… Then repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.”

Vocal and dance rehearsals began four months before filming began in the fall of 2021. The movie features several styles of dance, including tap, waltz, jazz, and even a kick-line.

The musical quality is not where the magic stops. The movie incorporates several scenes where at least 20 characters float into the sky after eating Wonka’s “Hover-Chocs.”

The film incorporated more than 50 film sets in England, ranging from the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“It was as if Paul King, the director, was whipping up cinematic chocolates of his own,” said Key. “It was like this film was his own factory. You could see the wonder on his face every day as he would figure things out and how they were going to look in the film.”

But– King was not the only person whipping up cinematic chocolates.

Gabriella Cugno was the behind-the-scenes Wonka of “Wonka.” Every kind of chocolate that appears in the film was actually edible! Cugno designed all 2,446 chocolates that are seen in the film. She even took dietary needs  into account, making batches of vegan chocolate for several cast members.

Key and Chalamet specifically formed a very strong bond while working on set together for their shared scenes. Their characters antagonize each other throughout the film. Even when some scenes got aggressive, the pair said they found so many ways to laugh about it with each other.

Timothee Chalamet as Willy Wonka (Photo by Jaap Buittendijk, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures).

Key mentioned how he loved working with Chalamet and talked about how talented Chalamet is.

In return, Chalamet said he loved working with Key. He told the journalists at the roundtable that he could not pick just one favorite memory from being on set with Key.

“Really any day [Key] was on set really was the best,” said Chalamet, beaming.

Not only is the bond between the pair as sweet as Wonka chocolate, but the message at the end is as equally as heartwarming. The pair say they have already begun to see amazing responses from the audience.

“The filming process was more full of whimsical energy and glee than anything I have been a part of,” said Chalamet. “And as a finished piece, I feel like it is the most generous project I have been a part of. It is easy to suggest to people to go see this movie. Every time I have seen it, people leave with a big smile on their face.”

As for the future of the film, Key hopes it will go down in history as positively as the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” He also hopes people will watch the movies together as a pair.

And—he also wonders what will happen next.

“There’s this big gap of time in between [the two films],” said Key. “Maybe we have to make another movie.”

But—for now, the actors are walking away with a project that will touch thousands, if not millions, of hearts.

“This film is about bringing light into a world that is in desperate need of it,” said Chalamet. “It’s to encourage dreaming; to encourage the dreamers to continue dreaming;  to encourage declaring yourself as you are and who you are without question. It’s about light and love. I’m so proud to have been a part of that.”  

The film premiered in international theaters and IMAX on Dec. 6. It premieres in North America on Dec. 15, 2023.

  • “Wonka”
  • Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
  • Director: Paul King.
  • Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Matt Lucas, Keegan-Michael Key, and Paterson Joseph.
  • Length: 1 hour 56 minutes.
  • MPAA rating: PG.
  • Release date: Dec. 15, 2023.