There’s a trend in the Hollywood that has been going on for decades now; focusing on prequels of villains and attempting to give them nuance. There’s Angelina Jolie’s turn as ‘Maleficent,’ it reimagines the story as if it were told incorrectly. Or like Emma Stone’s turn as ‘Cruella,’ who does not shy away from her evil tendencies but paints her as an anti-hero to an even more nefarious enemy in that story. Just recently, ‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ presents us with the origin story of President Snow, the main antagonist of ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy. While it does not shy away from his deeds, it does try to paint him as a sympathetic character.
While Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ is not necessarily evil, there is a sinister flair to him. I’m more familiar with the 1971 movie ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ directed by Mel Stuart and starred Gene Wilder. Willy Wonka is an eccentric, to put it mildly. Children have been hurt or even perished in his factory on the day of the visit and he remains emotionally unaffected by these – as if the children’s weaknesses and moral failings made them deserving of such punishment.
It’s this characterisation of the title character – which I was told, that sinister quality, is taken to the extreme in th 2005 movie adaptation by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp – that creates a disconnect with the newly released prequel ‘Wonka’ directed by Paul King and starring Timothee Chalamet. Whereas all previous materials on Willy Wonka creates a dark and mysterious character, Chalamet’s ‘Wonka’ is very light-hearted and friendly. There is a touch of whimsy on all versions but while the Wonka of ‘Wonka’ leans towards the cutesy and relatable, all other versions are shifting closer towards dark or sinister.
There is nothing about Willy Wonka in ‘Wonka’ that even closely hints at the person he will become in ‘Charlie and the Cholate Factory’ or any of its movie adaptations. And that becomes emblematic of this growing trend. In order to milk any franchise or IP of its monetary value, they will extend any character’s narrative, both for prequels and sequels with the hopes that the familiarity of the character would ensure box office success. Throw in a huge star into the mix and they are hoping for a healthy returns in ticket sales.
What this does, though, is that it removes the mystery from that of the audience. A lot of the magic of these narratives – especially from the dark, twisted minds of a children’s book author like Roald Dahl – comes from the stories that don’t make it to the books. What caused Willy Wonka to become the eccentric, anti-social chocolatier that he is, who doesn’t mind punishing children in severe ways for having the worst qualities of being a child.
It is the parts that are not shown and not talked about that activates the imagination, that allows us to wonder and dream. But an exercise like ‘Wonka’ or any of the other films I mentioned at the start of this critique is not interested in wonder or mystery. They want everything explained because it is what they think the audience wants, and so it will sell.
So ‘Wonka’ is about how Willy Wonka got his start in the chocolate business. From the onset, he’s already whimsical and flighty as a character. He already also has magic – though unexplained – and instead it becomes a story about how he beats a chocolate monopoly run by a cartel. It’s about breaking oppressive systems by being just as sneaky – bending the rules because those in power don’t play fair. It sets itself as an underdog story complete with an orphan girl, Noodle (played by Calah Lane) and ragtag of other people were cheated out of their freedom by a sinister proprietress of a bed and breakfast (played by Olivia Colman).
Like any material based on a Roald Dahl book, the villains are dastardly and cruel, and they don’t play fair. But without any real struggle, Willy Wonka and his ragtag band of misfits go toe to toe with both Colman’s Mrs Scrubbs and the chocolate cartel. What adds to the disconnect of the whole story on Willy Wonka is that this is a musical with only one really good, proper song. There’s even a song that attempts to rhyme different words with chocolate and instead of coming off as charming, it sounds annoying instead; and other than that, the chocolate is not symbolic of anything other than that of childhood dreams. Wonka is dead set on making it big as a chocolatier because of that connection with his mom but the film fails to create any real connection with the symbol (chocolates and chocolate-making) with the people around him.
The chocolates themselves are just a means to an end. What the film manages to establish is his connection with his band in the same struggles that they share but it has nothing to do with the chocolate itself. For a film as magical and whimsical as this, it would be nice if the chocolate actually meant something other than a setting or any interchangeable McGuffin. ‘Wonka’ is big and loud and wears its heart on its sleeve. It is tailor-made as a movie made for the entire family. It has not set out to tell us anything new nor is it in any danger of upsetting anyone or offending anyone’s sensibilities and as such, it carries very little mystery or wonder or any real sense of magic.