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In Wonka, Timothee Chalamet finds a world of pure imagination

Hugh Grant learned some years ago that if a filmmaker doesn’t make something from the heart, it shows. The films that work best, and are most loved, he’s found, are the ones that the directors really meant.

It applied to his romantic comedies with Richard Curtis as well as Paddington 2. And he’s pretty sure it’s true of Wonka. The lavish big screen musical about a young Willy Wonka – before Charlie, before the chocolate factory – is dancing into theatres this month with its heart on its velvet sleeve. It opens in Singapore on Wednesday (Dec 6). 

Like the Paddington movies, Wonka was dreamt up by Paul King, a lifetime Roald Dahl fan and a writer and director whom his collaborators somewhat universally agree may actually be Paddington in a human costume. With a beloved troupe of actors, including Grant, Timothee Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins as well as newcomer Calah Lane, its vibrant costumes and sets and a contagious “let’s put on a show” energy, Wonka feels like a modern homage to classic MGM productions of the 1940s.

This was a little baffling to Chalamet, who only learned this at the premiere in London. But for him, Wonka was a chance to do something a bit different, on a grand scale. He also understands audiences being a little skeptical of any spin-off of a beloved character, but he takes comfort in something Gerwig said while they were making Little Women.

He recalled her telling him “something like, ‘For anybody that’s saying that a lot of versions of this have been made, you know, when it’s done well, no one complains,’” he said. “I think Paul really did that here.”

In addition to Pure Imagination and the Oompa Loompa song from the 1971 film, Neil Hannon, frontman of The Divine Comedy, wrote six original songs, while Christopher Gatelli (Hail, Caesar!) oversaw the choreography.

Though Chalamet grew up surrounded by dancers (his sister, mother and grandmother included), and had done musicals at his performing arts high school, he didn’t fully appreciate the exhaustive rigour of it. He’d trained for Wonka for months, but he was still not fully prepared for how taxing “take 13” of a large-scale dance number would be.

“He’s very modest and I think that’s one of the nice things about him,” said King, who has compared Chalamet’s singing voice to Bing Crosby.

The sets, overseen by production designer Nathan Crowley (Interstellar) were also something grand to behold. King wanted the city to look like “the best of Europe”. In total, they built more than 50 set across three soundstages, a backlot and an aircraft hanger around Warner Bros Studios Leavesden, in addition to several on-site locations in the UK to give the film its whimsical, but grounded feel. Lindy Hemming (Paddington) designed the vibrant costumes.

Perhaps the most inspired twist of Wonka is Grant, an actor made world famous for his good looks and charm and romantic leads, who is playing an Oompa-Loompa.

King had already introduced Grant to a new generation of youngsters having him as the washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2. When he was re-rereading Charlie And The Chocolate Factory he found “Hugh’s voice” coming into his head for the devious little workers.

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