For what seems to be nearly a decade now, the mainstream pop culture movie business has been going through a ‘Remake Era’ where instead of striving to create original works of art, an incessant barrage of unnecessary remakes and spin-offs of timeless classics have flooded the market. Timeless movies that by no means need additional continuation are being used as nostalgia bait, being re-created with no passion or respect for the vision of the original makers, and as a result, having their legacy ruined. In such a climate, the proposition of a prequel movie to Roald Dahl’s iconic book and silver-screen adaptation of the same name, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sounded sacrilegious, to say the least, with a significant number of people expressing their skepticism, considering the possibility of another enduring work of literature getting tainted by the remake trend.
Fortunately, the aforementioned prequel, Wonka, which was released worldwide last weekend, has turned out to be surprisingly decent and somewhat worthy of being associated with the magical legacy of Willy Wonka. As a callback to old-school musicals, with a simplistic and wholesome plotline that fits right into the magic realism of such narratives, Wonka finds its strength in the portrayal of the titular character by actor Timothée Chalamet, which shares key similarities with past versions of the character while retaining its own uniqueness. However, at the same time, the portrayal is quite different from the source material itself, which perhaps works for a new generation audience but misses the nuances of the character in the process, big time. Let us engage in a comparative analysis of all three silver screen presentations of Willy Wonka, which will help us explore the timeless quality of the character.
Gene Wilder’s Divisive Yet Definitive Portrayal
The first cinematic adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971) was among the handful of movies since The Wizard of Oz that replicated the source material’s fantastical worldview with such authenticity. One of the major standout performances in the movie was Gene Wilder’s unpredictable, borderline creepy yet charismatic and kind-hearted portrayal of Willy Wonka, the mysterious owner of the chocolate factory. Right from the first appearance of the character at almost the halfway point of the movie, Wilder’s Wonka became the center of attention through his eccentric, wacky demeanor. This version of Wonka cannot be tied down to any simplistic or one-dimensional traits; it is unreliable, to say the least, and the fact that viewers never truly know his real intentions makes the character really complex. In the movie, the world of Charlie Bucket is guided by a simplistic moral binary of good and evil, and Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory stand as an anomaly in that.
This is especially perceived in the tunnel of terror scene, as the paddleboat carrying the lucky (?) visitors enters through a tunnel and picks up breakneck speed after Wonka persuades the Oompa Loompas to row faster and faster, jeopardizing everyone’s safety in the process—viewers are taken on a terrible psychedelic trip. A montage of subliminal imagery meant to induce fear, combined with an ominous poem recited by Wonka seemingly in a trance state, followed by an unearthly shriek, makes viewers question the motivations of the chocolate baron, who appears nothing short of a horror villain in this sequence. Right after the tunnel trip ends, a plain old jingle takes viewers to of an invention room, totally juxtaposing the sequence it followed. It becomes confusing to think how the same character can cheer everyone up with the iconic tunes of Pure Imagination soon after, and in this duality lies the brilliance of the complex characterization of Gene Wilder’s Wonka. While viewers think that his mischievous nature is a guise of a man with a noble heart intended to befool the participant children, they themselves are getting played into ignoring the meta-narrative of consumerism through the sinister undertones of Wonka’s character. The portrayal remains extremely nuanced yet divisive because Roald Dahl himself was dissatisfied with the movie adaptation.
Johnny Depp’s Fan Favorite Portrayal
While Tim Burton’s morbid worldview translated in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) showcased an even greater authenticity to the source material, Johnny Depp’s Wonka lost the mystery factor by giving the character a backstory explaining his worldview and demeanor. The child trauma rooted in the cold and harsh treatment of Willy’s father was used as the foundation of his distant, reclusive, anti-social attitude and narcissistic, perfectionist personality. The disdain this version of Wonka feels towards children is a reflection of his own father issues, and the sadistic undercurrent of his temperament can be explained by the same as well. Unlike Gene Wilder’s version of the mogul, whose endgame apparently was to find a legacy of his own, Depp’s Wonka found a sense of fulfillment and safety through his chocolate factory and took cues from the relationship Charlie Bucket shares with his family as a process of healing his own broken psyche. Even though this version of the simplified Wonka is a fan favorite, it tones down the character several notches, but that is nothing compared to what Wonka did with the titular character.
An Unrecognizable Willy In 2023 Film
While the makers and lead actor have gone on record to mention that Wonka (2023) is intended to be a spiritual prequel to Gene Wilder’s original movie, we simply fail to find much of the characteristic similarity between the respective portrayals of Willy Wonka. As a prequel, the movie acts like an origin tale of Wonka, who builds his chocolate empire on his wits, merit, and magic, also with the help of his associates. While Timothée Chalamet’s strong performance will surely garner him many accolades, the characterization of Wonka is extremely well-played and watered down for the taste of the readers.
Right from the beginning, as the musical introduces Wonka arriving in the city after a seven-year voyage across seven seas, it becomes really apparent that naivety, innocence, and kindness of spirit are his notable traits. He has iconic charisma, anti-authoritarian flair, and a daring ambition, but his goody-two-shoe ideals are really one-toned. The makers’ decision to provide him with a humble beginning to make his starry-eyed character relatable might gel with the audience fed up with the flat, everyman protagonists of recent blockbusters, but it defeats the intended purpose of the source material, which tried to portray Wonka as someone with darkness lurking underneath the charming appearance. Throughout the movie, Wonka remains a Mary Sue alternative who stays on the path of righteousness to foil the plans of the Chocolate Cartel and acts extremely sociable, which is one of the numerous departures from the character’s original traits as shown in previous ventures. His motivation behind creating a chocolate empire is a promise he made to his deceased mother, which once again is a choice intended to make the character likeable and relatable but does nothing to capture the nuance presented in previous portrayals. Wonka’s relationship with the orphan Noodles, almost like an elder sibling, is marked with honesty and trust as well, which is in direct contrast to Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the character. During the ending portion of the movie, as Wonka sings Pure Imagination with Lofty, the Oompa Loompa, as they create the foundation of the chocolate factory, the sense of joy and glee is free from the uncertainty that we can feel from Gene Wilder’s version of Wonka.
At the end, Wonka reinvents the titular character, which is surely going to get acceptance with its safe, run-of-the-mill portrayal, but in the long run, it is destined to fade into obscurity in the general consciousness.