Saturday, December 30, 2023

Broadway Rhythm: WONKA and THE COLOR PURPLE

Those drawing connections between the current ongoing collapse of box office for big-budget Hollywood efforts in overfamiliar genres and the similar moment in the late-1960s might be chuffed to find Warner Brothers looking around at properties they own and asking: can we make that a musical? If we really are in a late stage for the current studio system, like 60 years ago, it should be little surprise to see the return of the big, corny backlot song-and-dance show. The modern twist is that it’s not in and of itself representative of said bloated, over-tapped genres, but instead harkening back. They’re simultaneously reviving old forms of showbiz while wringing more material out of old ideas the studio owns—plunging into their vaults to re-exploit old hits, making new ones while driving some business into catalog titles, too.

So it goes with Wonka, a prequel to Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That book tells how reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka lets a group of children tour his fantastical factory—and watches as their obvious personality defects lead them one by one to ruin. That book, with its wicked dark humor and vivid imagination, has already been adapted twice over—in 1971 starring a mercurial Gene Wilder dripping with droll Dahl dialogue, and in 2005 starring a pasty Johnny Depp in a full Tim Burton spectacle. This new movie puts twiggy it-boy Timothée Chalamet in the title role as a dewey-eyed dreamer who hopes to open a chocolate factory. That the fact he will is a forgone conclusion does little to dim the movie’s underdog spirit is due to his off-kilter charm. He never quite settles comfortably into the singing and dancing required of him, but squint a little and the boyish discomfort—the hey-that-jock-isn’t-so-bad-in-the-school-play attitude—goes a long way to charm.

The movie around him is working overtime to sell the high-spirited whimsy, too. Writer-director Paul King, he of the agreeably twee Paddington pictures, has a suitably British style that fusses with the magic and mischief in a perfectly puffed-up sense of its own twinkling wryness. There’s a discount Dickens to the setup, as Wonka finds himself in preposterous debt to transparently scamming boarding house proprietors named Scrubitt and Bleacher (Olivia Colman and Tom Davis). And he can’t pay them back by selling his marvelous, scrumptious magic chocolates because of the city’s cruel candy cartel and their ruthless rules. (Crooked cops (Keegan-Michael Key) and priests (Rowan Atkinson) keep the shops in line.) This is all fine and funny, and King keeps the plates spinning with a game supporting cast (Jim Carter! Natasha Rothwell! Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa!) giving swell theatrical performances. It has a bit of the cruel-and-clever blend you’d expect from a knockoff Dahl (for the real deal you’d have to go to Wes Anderson’s brilliant short film short story adaptations, dumped unceremoniously on Netflix). But Wonka’s makers can’t help but mix that bitterness with heaps of sugary sentimentality that lets you know it’ll be all right. The look is primary colors and rounded edges, fake snow and smiles, even when businessmen plot murder and pay off police with pallets of chocolates. The knowingly fake stages and pleasant melodies and soft choreography all adds up to something sweet enough to pass the time.

Warner Brothers also has a bright, backlot-looking musical of The Color Purple in theaters now. It naturally shares its plot’s structure and events with Alice Walker’s novel, and the 1985 Steven Spielberg drama that made Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey stars. This new film version is not nearly as powerful, but it has some merit. It takes the Broadway adaptation as inspiration, and it is admirably tough material from which to draw such danceable exuberance. The story follows an impoverished young black woman in early-20th century southern America as she’s separated from her sister by her cruel husband. As the decades pass, she learns about her own interests and desires and is slowly able to assert herself against the tides of abuse her family and her society push upon her. This is strong stuff about sisterly bonds and the triumph of the human spirit, and, by the end, a kind of radical forgiveness. I am not made of stone; tears welled up in my eyes during the final communal energy of a cast clad in white, raising their hands to the heavens, declaring a moral and spiritual victory as one. It makes its case loudly and broadly, with little of the nuance of a more sensitive drama, but all the obvious stage power of a big, belting one.

The story is too good for a phony sheen to stop it entirely. The performances here overflow with energy, through pain and pleasure alike. Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, and Danielle Brooks are a formidable trio of voices and personality, emoting through each note with huge melodic crescendoes and propelling each spoken line with the expression to carry it to the back row of the highest balcony. (The skilled supporting players here—from Colman Domingo to Halle Bailey—pop with the same sharp shorthand dramatics.) It helps, I suppose, that Marcus Gardley’s screenplay is generally averse to subtext—it’s all right on the surface. That makes it a good match for the obvious emotional exposition of the musical numbers faithfully recreated as stage-bound, even in flight of dream ballet fancy. Director Blitz Bazawule cuts cleanly and stages with broad blocking. Every shot, in songs and straight scenes alike, is a posed snippet of theatrical choreography. And it’s all so brightly, evenly lit in images scrubbed an uncanny digital shine, that it sparkles with its fakery even as its story works hard to sell the darkest realism. That mix of the deep and shallow, the smooth and the tough, makes it an uneven 140 minutes. But the story itself has such undeniable force that the whole movie gets pulled toward tears anyway.

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