Wonka

Posted on December 14, 2023 at 12:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, mild language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Candy with magical properties
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, character bullied and beat up, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
“Wonka” is the origin story of everyone’s favorite fictional chocolatier, the central figure in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Anyone who ever wondered how Willy Wonka got started, how he developed his incomparably delicious and deliciously magical candies, built a factory, and met the Oompa-Loompas, will find all of that here and more. As we might expect from the people behind the Paddington films, it is brimming with whimsy, charm, and heart, and that is movie magic. The production design, by Nathan Crowley (“Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight”) is wonderfully intricate and tactile, mixing Dickensian touches and Rube Goldberg fancifulness. It just about qualifies as a world of pure imagination.

Timothee Chalet plays the young Wonka, who grew up on a boat with his mother (Sally Hawkins), a brilliant chocolatier who experimented with recipes as they visited exotic locations. As the movie begins, she has died, and he has come to a big European city (touches of London, Paris, and Vienna) to share his chocolates with the world.

Things go badly. His chocolates have people floating on air. Literally. But the three chocolate CEOs who control the market do not want the competition and they bribe a chocolate-loving local cop (Keegan-Michael Key) to keep him from selling his chocolate (yes, families will get a little introduction to cartels and the importance of enforcing antitrust law). And Wonka ignores the advice to read the fine print before signing a contract (more worthwhile legal advice for families) for a night’s stay at a local inn run by the Dickensian-ishly named Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). It turns out he signed away his services for her laundry, along with an orphan child named Noodle (Calah Lane) and several other colorful characters. He is a prisoner and it looks like he will be stuck for decades.

But Wonka is nothing if not optimistic and enterprising. He has a solution to the problem of the endless piles of laundry that gives him a chance to escape for until Mrs. Scrubbit’s daily check. Noodle becomes his sidekick as he continues to try to create and sell chocolates.

The Wonka in the original book and movie is not a nice person. Children enjoy his wicked streak, taking pleasure in the outrageous consequences for the young visitor who ignore his warnings. And even those who still love the movie are generally in agreement that what happens to Mike, Veruca, and Augustus is pretty drastic. In this film, a character does suffer consequences of his gluttony to an extent that feels like too much for the world they have created. This Wonka is not just younger but sweeter than the one we know. He takes a stand against stealing and faces some consequences for a thoughtless taking of some (but not all) of the candy ingredients he collects.

Chalamet is just right in the role, and he has great chemistry with Hugh Grant(!) as the Oompa-Loompa (with what is probably the only funny joke about economy plus travel in history). Like Paddington, Wonka brings out the best in the people around him, and in the delighted audience, too.

Parents should know that this film has a sad offscreen death of a parent, a child and adults held captive, fantasy-style violence (Wonka’s face pushed into water, bonked on the head), and some mild language.

Family discussion: What makes Willy Wonka good at solving problems? What is your favorite kind of chocolate and what Wonka treat do you wish you could try?

If you like this, try: The Roald Dahl books and the Gene Wilder movie

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The Witches (2020)

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Magical potions
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comedy/fantasy peril, children and witches transformed into animals, sad death of parents in auto accident
Diversity Issues: Diversity issues of the era briefly referred to
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2020
Copyright HBO 2020

The witches are back. First there was the the 1963 book by Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, the BFG, Matilda, and some creepy stories for grown-ups, too). Then there was the 1990 movie, starring Angelica Huston (and making a significant change to the ending). And now, CGI fantasy-master Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”) gives us his version, starring two Oscar-winners and co-written with Kenya Barris of “Black-ish” and “Girls Trip.”

“Witches are as real as a rock in your shoe…They’re here and they live amongst us,” the narrator immediately identifiable as Chris Rock tells us. And “witches hate children. They get the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from ice cream with butterscotch sauce and a cherry on top.”

Then we go back in time to 1968. The setting of the book and the first movie has been moved from Norway and England to a Black community in Alabama. Jahzir Bruno plays the unnamed boy whose parents are killed in an automobile accident in the first few minutes. His grandmother (Octavia Spencer) comes to get him. He’ll be living with her, in the house where his mother grew up. He describes her as “quick to give you a spanking if you deserved it or a hug if you need it.” She comforts him. And when he has a scary encounter with a gloved woman in a hat who offers him candy, she starts to tell him what she knows about witches.

She had her own encounter with a witch as a child, when one turned her best friend into a chicken. And so, to keep him safe, she takes him to a grand hotel. Unfortunately, it turns out the hotel is also hosting a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, relishing the opportunity to vamp up a storm).

One element of the story that has not aged well is the way it dwells on the physical deformities of the witches, bald, with scabby scalps, huge, gaping mouths, claw hands, and no toes. Even though the witches are not human, the association of disabilities with evil is less palatable than it once was. (Anne Hathaway has apologized for the insensitivity of this portrayal.)

Zemeckis sometimes gets so caught up in the visual effects that he overlooks the story, but here the visuals are almost entirely in service of the story, especially after the boy is turned into a mouse (which, adorably, he quite likes) and we get to see things from his angle. Dahl’s story provides a strong foundation, and Spencer, who could easily have phoned in a role like this, gives it her substantial all. I’d still give the 1990 version the edge, but it is good to see the original ending restored and this is a worthy Halloween treat.

Parents should know that this film has fantasy peril and violence and some disturbing images. A child’s parents are killed in a car accident. Children are turned into mice. Witches have physical deformities including huge, scary, gaping mouths. There is some schoolyard language and there are understated references to racism of the era.

Family discussion: Why did the boy like being a mouse? What was the scariest moment in the movie? Why do the witches do what the Grand High Witch tells them?

If you like this, try: the 1990 film with Angelica Huston and the book by Roald Dahl, as well as the movies based on his other books, including “Matilda,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “The BFG”

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The BFG

Posted on June 30, 2016 at 5:50 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief scene with drunken characters
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style violence, reference to off-screen violence, including death of children, but no characters injured
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 28, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01G4N5Q0A
Copyright 2016 Disney
Copyright 2016 Disney

Steven Spielberg. the director who, with his partners, named their movie studio Dreamworks, understands that movies are like a guided dream. Roald Dahl’s story is about a Big Friendly Giant who collects, selects, edits, and delivers dreams to make people happy and conveys messages that are beyond the capacity of verbal human interaction. Clearly, this story connects with Spielberg profoundly, and it shows.

At 3 am one night in 1983, a girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is the only one awake in the horrible London orphanage where she lives. We can see right away that she is brave and smart, even fierce, as she threatens to call the cops on some drunken revelers making noise in the street. But then she witnesses a disturbance of another kind. Someone very, very large, as tall as her building, is walking quietly — no, stealthily — through the streets.

And then an enormous hand reaches silently and carefully into the window of the room filled with sleeping girls and the very awake Sophie, and grabs her, quilt and all. It is a giant.

He knows how to stay hidden. We see him employ some clever camouflage that keeps the Londoners from seeing him, and then takes off for Giant country, far, far away, but a matter of moments if you’ve got giant legs to leap with. Sophie is terrified. She is sure that the giant wants to eat her. But he does not eat children, he tells her, in his funny, corkscrew, word-twisting language. He has only taken her because she saw him, and he cannot risk her telling anyone about him. He has taken her to keep her from giving away his secret, which means she will have to stay with him forever.

Sophie is determined to run away. But that night, in the crow’s nest of a ship that is one of the many curios crowding his home, she dreams that she escapes, only to be captured and eaten by some even bigger giants. Through this dream, she begins to understand what her giant, soon to be known as the BFG, can’t explain any other way. She cannot be safe if she leaves his house. The other giants, who are as big to him as he is to Sophie, are uncivilized brutes and bullies. They eat “human beans,” including children (a bit less grisly than in the book, but still creepy).

The BFG, whose huge ears listen to everything, even the quietest whisperings of the heart, collects dreams. Sophie goes with him to the place where dreams grow, and she helps him deliver the happiest possible dreams to a young boy and his family. The lonely little girl and the lonely giant get to know one another, and become friends. But the other giants can smell her, and they won’t leave the BFG and Sophie alone. They have to come up with a plan to get rid of the child-eating giants forever. It will involve dreams. And corgis.

This is a slighter story than Dahl’s richly imagined Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, with much of its humor coming from the BFG’s mangled words and his affection for his favorite beverage, Frobscottle, a fizzy green drink with bubbles that float down, rather than up. The noisy and powerfully butt-lifting physical consequence of this downward gas is what the BFG calls a whizpopple. And there is also an extended scene with the BFG trying to fit into the “bean”-sized world, sitting on a bench on top of a piano and using a rake as a fork.

That almost doesn’t matter, given Spielberg’s gorgeously imagined world and the performances of Mark Rylance as the BFG and Barnhill as Sophie. Rylance, whose last collaboration with Spielberg won him an Oscar for “Bridge of Spies,” is transformed via motion capture into the BFG, and does not lose an atom of his ability to express the BFG’s melancholy, isolation, gentleness, and integrity.

Spielberg has always been superb in casting, especially with children. Barnhill’s performance would be remarkable if she were interacting in a built, rather than virtual world. Given that in much of the movie she was probably looking at a tennis ball hanging in front of a green screen, it is truly astonishing. She so clearly believes in what we see around her and to her character’s friendship with the BFG that we believe in it, too. Next-level special effects help, too, with utterly seamless interaction between the digital and practical effects and gorgeous, wonderfully intricate production design that makes the BFG’s home both cozy and strange. The setting for retrieving the dreams is enchanting, though the visualization of the dreams themselves is not up to the level of the rest of the design. But the friendship between the BFG and Sophie is real magic.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy peril and some violence (no characters hurt), references to children being eaten by giants, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: What dream would you most like to have? Why wasn’t the BFG like the other giants?

If you like this, try: Roald Dahl books and movies including “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Matilda,” and “James and the Giant Peach”

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Roald Dahl — Movies and Television

Posted on June 27, 2016 at 8:00 am

Roald Dahl was a prolific author whose books included wildly popular children’s stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the creepy short stories that inspired some of the best-remembered episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Show,” including “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with one of the great murder weapons in the history of murder stories. This week, the latest Dahl adaptation comes to screen, Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG.”

Stephanie Merry has a terrific piece in the Washington Post about the films based on Dahl’s children’s books, from Fantastic Mr. Fox to Anjelica Huston’s title role in The Witches.

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Trailer: Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”

Posted on December 12, 2015 at 8:00 am

Roald Dahl’s book about The BFG (big friendly giant) is coming to theaters, directed by Steven Spielberg and with a script from “E.T” screenwriter Melissa Mathison. (It has a bit of an “E.T.” feel to it, don’t you think?)

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