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The 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the greatest live action children’s movie ever made.
However, the recently released trailer for Wonka, an entirely unnecessary origin story of the iconic chocolatier starring Timothee Chalamet, is further proof that Hollywood still has no idea what made the original film so great.
Gene Wilder’s OG Wonka: the perfect cinematic villain.Credit: Janet Briggs
It’s not because it’s an inspiring story of an idealistic little boy’s journey from desperate poverty to fame and riches. It’s not because a seemingly endless labyrinth of chocolate and candy is every child’s dream. And it’s certainly not because Willy Wonka is some kindly magical wiseacre, à la Gandalf or Dumbledore.
It’s because Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is basically Saw for kids.
The enduring appeal of Willy Wonka is not because he’s a quirky eccentric with access to a river of chocolate. It’s because, as portrayed by Gene Wilder, Wonka is a perfect cinematic villain.
Wilder’s performance is a powerhouse of understated menace. His Wonka is a quietly deranged recluse, a sugar-peddling maniac exploiting his position as a powerful chocolate mogul to impose his own twisted morality. With every look of bemused disappointment, every side-eye of detached judgement, he besets this musical fantasy for kids with an undercurrent of terror.
Timothee Chalamet is young Wonka. Do we even want young Wonka?Credit: Warner Bros
Compare that with Johnny’s Depp’s iteration in 2005’s Tim Burton-directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Both versions of the character view children with distaste, but where Wilder’s Wonka seems to hold them in utter contempt, Depp’s is mostly… grossed out. Vaguely annoyed. Depp’s Wonka is offputtingly whimsical, quirky to a fault. With his pasty, plastic face, high-pitched whispery voice, and effeminate manner, the comparisons to Michael Jackson are impossible to ignore. It’s perturbing, but not scary. It’s skin-crawling, but not gripping. It’s kookiness on a level that feels forced and unenjoyable.
“I want a golden goose, daddy! Give it to me now!”
The original film is full of indelible nightmare fuel: think of Augustus Gloop’s desperate clawing as he drowns in chocolate, his mother shrieking as he is inhaled into a tube. Think of the creepy-as-hell Arthur Slugworth, whispering ghoulishly in each child’s ear and cornering Charlie in a shadowy alley. Think Charlie and Grandpa Joe’s near decapitation. May I repeat: near decapitation. And that’s not to mention the terrifying riverboat sequence, a whirring ride through a hellish tunnel to the sound of Wonka’s chilling requiem. Every single character in this movie experiences genuine fear that they are about to die.
Meanwhile, in the 2005 version, every moment of potential fright is quickly numbed by an attempt at quirkiness or humour. The ironic punishments doled out to each child are undercut every time by sarcastic remarks and lame punchlines. Augustus Gloop’s otherwise horrifying journey up the chocolate pipe, for example, quickly devolves into a fat joke as the poor boy gets stuck in the tube.
Johnny Depp as the creepiest Wonka.Credit: AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures/Peter Mountain
At least the Chalamet-led Wonka looks like it might be funny. It looks magical. It looks exactly like what you would expect from the producer of Harry Potter and the director of Paddington. A technicolour dreamscape, a world of wonder and surprise.
What it does not look like, though, is scary. It’s simply impossible to see how, over the course of a two-hour origin story, we will see this wide-eyed optimist become a psychopath. How will this naïve genius with a spirit of joy and a soul of invention become the kind of villain who would drop a little girl down a garbage chute into a furnace?
This is not the first attempt at providing Willy Wonka with an origin story, either. Tim Burton tried that one too. Depp’s Wonka was strictly forbidden by his harsh dentist father from ever consuming candy, and naturally when he becomes hooked after trying his first piece, he flees his home to build an empire. To be fair, the flashbacks do provide the one truly frightening scene in the entire film, as Dr Wilbur Wonka, played by legendary Sir Christopher Lee, maniacally shoves dental tools into a gaping mouth.
Both the 2005 remake and the to-be-released Wonka have worked to create wild, majestic fantasy worlds around a misunderstood but ultimately loveable weirdo. But they’ve learned the wrong lesson.
The key to Willy Wonka’s success was never the magic – it was the menace.
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