I admit that I can be a bit defensive about some classic movies. When something has been made truly spectacularly, to the point that one might call it “magic,” it becomes pretty sacrosanct to me. Such is the case with the likes of Blazing Saddles or It’s a Wonderful Life, both of which have had blasphemous genre remakes over the last year-plus in the respective forms of Paws of Fury and It’s a Wonderful Knife.
The same is true for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The 1971 extravaganza remains one of my all-time favorites, thanks to its creativity, style, music, surprising darkness, and the immortal performance of Gene Wilder. I have a lot of memories tied to this movie. When I got my first real job out of college, I sprang up like Jack Albertson and sang “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” at the top of my lungs. The massively fucked up riverboat scene taught me the value of a good, fun scare. When Wilder died, I sobbed along to “Pure Imagination” in my car on the way home from work, knowing that a truly unique miracle of a person had left this world forever.
My family took in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory together, as going to the theatre as a group was one of our regular traditions when we were all still in the same location. My “Remake Rule“ wasn’t firmly in place yet, but I admit I was a tad skeptical, mostly because nothing could equal the original. But I gave it a chance, because I love Tim Burton’s work, and because the film was advertised as hewing more closely to the source material (Roald Dahl famously hated pretty much all of the adaptations of his books, but especially the 70s version). It had its moments, and Johnny Depp was delightfully unpleasant in places, but on the whole the project didn’t work for me.
Naturally, when I learned of a prequel in the form of Wonka, I was not enthused. I included the trailer in the December edition of TFINYW because the whole affair smacked of standard issue prequel idiocy, with woefully bad effects, an oddly corporate tone for such a whimsical property, and Timothée Chalamet looking distinctly out of place in the costume. But I decided to hold my nose and go for it as my last theatrical viewing of 2023, thinking that there’s an outside chance that it could get nominated for artistic categories like Production Design and Costume Design (it had already been eliminated from competition for Makeup & Hairstyling, Original Song, and Visual Effects), and if nothing else, it couldn’t be worse than the absolute bottom of the New Year’s Eve barrel for me, Cats.
So, more than a month after its release, and nearly three weeks after I saw it, how does it measure up? Meh. There are a couple of things worth recommending, which I’ll highlight in short order, but there are also a ton of things wrong, and most of them align with many of the major issues that make prequels just a bad idea in general. Most of my fears were confirmed, but there were a few pleasant surprises here and there. Really though, what it all boils down to is that the film just completely misses the point of the character of Willy Wonka, which is the biggest crime of all.
With a song in his heart and 12 meager coins to his name, Willy Wonka (Chalamet) arrives in a distinctly British port town full of British people, American people, and Americans speaking in British accents. Having spent years scouring the world for ingredients to make the world’s most delectable chocolates — but somehow never working or saving enough money to get his business off the ground — he’s quickly left penniless in the streets, with nothing but a hat, a suitcase, and his dreams. Oh, and a dead mother, too (Sally Hawkins in flashbacks), because we can’t have a family picture without half the family being deceased. God forbid the kiddies hear a swear word, but we’re totally fine if they ask mommy why Wonka’s mommy is rotting in the ground. LOGIC!
Freezing to death in the cruel cobblestones of the unnamed city, Wonka is accosted by Bleacher (Tom Davis), who brings him to a boarding house and laundromat run by Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman going insanely Cockney). She sweetly offers a room for a single coin that Wonka can pay the next day, before an impish whisper warns Willy about the fine print in the absurdly long, usurious contract. But he agrees because he’s illiterate.
The next day, Willy goes to a plaza where three competing chocolate shops operate in a monopolized cabal, and demonstrates his magical “Hoverchocs,” which give eaters the temporary sensation of being lighter than air and floating above the ground. The chocolate dons, Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Felix Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton), assert their power by having Wonka’s pop-up display shut down by the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key), whom they have repeatedly bribed with super-concentrated chocolate that they make by diluting the sweetness from what they sell commercially. Willy’s profits are seized, and he’s therefore unable to pay his lodging bill (and all the exorbitant fees attached to it), and is thus imprisoned in the wash house as an indentured servant.
It is there that Wonka meets the source of the warning voice, a young orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane), who’s just the cutest little set of focus group box checks. Along with her are a quartet of other duped rubes in the forms of accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), the industrious Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), failed comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), and telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar). In exchange for reading lessons, Willy promises Noodle a lifetime supply of chocolate, which she’s never had before, but quickly becomes hopeful after trying a sample instantly made from Wonka’s TARDIS suitcase. Eventually, the entire lot is brought in on the various schemes to help Willy escape and covertly sell his wares, so that he can open a store, employ them all, and free them from their situation.
This is basically just the first act, but it demonstrates both the highs and the lows of the entire product. Chalamet, as great of an actor as he is, more often than not comes off like he’s doing a Wonka cosplay rather than embodying the role of Willy Wonka. This is because the character himself has been neutered by studio interference. Gone is the cleverness and sly strategizing that always has him one darkly comical step ahead of everyone else in the room. Instead he’s an overly optimistic naïf, endlessly positive and trusting despite a ton of evidence to the contrary from nearly everyone around him.
Because of that, almost all of the supporting cast is alarmingly one-note. Hell, for more than half of them, their one defining character trait is in their pun-based name. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are just the right amount of Dahl-esque silly and on-the-nose — Scrubitt and Bleacher being laundry owners, for example — but there’s a limit, and sadly that came the instant that Chucklesworth first opened his mouth to tell a bad joke.
But more importantly, all of this rigmarole demonstrates the textbook flaws with the prequel process. Everything is a reference, but nothing is explained or informed. This film is ostensibly about Willy Wonka’s journey to becoming the eccentric chocolatier that we all know and love. The actual tagline used in advertising was “Discover how Willy became Wonka,” but there is no discovery. Apart from a few cutaways, we don’t actually see him roaming the Earth, scavenging for flavors and ingredients, meeting magical beasts and learning the trade. Nope, he’s already a fucking wizard making things out of “Giraffe Milk” and “Yeti Sweat” when we meet him. He’s already gained all this expertise… yet he somehow can’t read. Bullshit my asshole.
Along the periphery, we get all these winks and nods to things we love about the original film (and some things we tolerated about the remake), but none of them work properly within context. Willy gets tricked into signing a contract with a ton of small print, because there’s a contract with tiny print in the first movie. Wonka makes candy that makes you floaty, because we had the Fizzy Lifting Drinks in the first movie! A climactic moment uses a propeller and chocolate mixer to put Willy and Noodle in peril by rising them towards a deadly ceiling, BECAUSE THAT HAPPENED IN THE FIRST MOVIE! He offers Noodle a lifetime supply of chocolate, because. That. Happened. In. The. FIRST! FUCKING! MOVIE!
The problem is that merely alluding to something isn’t actually connecting any narrative dots. Why would Wonka use the same wicked contract in his later work if he himself got fooled by it? Why would he bother making Fizzy Lifting Drinks if he’s already perfected floating chocolate, and why would he have any trouble converting the recipe to liquid form? Why would he create elaborate childhood death traps when he himself literally almost dies by one, WITH A CHILD IN TOW? It’s not enough to just say, “Hey, I remember that thing.” You have to give us a reason why we use that thing now to get to the thing we know about from back then. It raises no questions and makes all the sense! Wait, strike that. Reverse it. [See, I can do it too!] This is why the Star Wars prequels fell so flat. Invoking a nostalgic memory doesn’t make us appreciate it more when in doing so, you create a plot paradox that denigrates both the original and the new chapter. That’s what’s happening here.
Part of the issue is that the film fails to realize that the magic was in the factory, not necessarily Willy himself. He used unorthodox methods and concocted machinery that made his creations in wonderfully odd ways, but at the end of the day, his product was normal. Whether it was a regular Wonka bar or a Scrumdiddlyumptious, it was still just ordinary candy that tasted good. True, he was working on fantastical ideas like Three Course Meal Chewing Gum and Everlasting Gobstoppers, but they were still in progress, and all they were meant to do was satisfy a craving and provide flavor. He drops a shoe into a vat for the joke of giving the sweets “a little kick,” not so that it would literally kick you. Even the Exploding Candy (for enemies) was just meant to offer a playful pop, not actually blow their faces off.
All of this came together because Wonka was something of a sociopath. He delighted in rewarding the virtuous and punishing the selfish, and the tests set up during the factory tour were for that purpose, making sure to leave the losing children a little wiser for their experience in hopes that they would improve their character flaws. Here though, no such thing. Everyone who’s good is perfect, and everyone else is corrupt and evil. All Willy wants to do is open his shop, make his bombastic chocolates, and eventually realize that the real chocolate was the friends we made along the way. There are no lessons to be learned, just pixie dust and unicorn smiles, which I’m sure also somehow wind up in Wonka’s culinary output. That represents a fundamental failure to understand the character.
Then of course, there’s the orange pygmy elephant in the room, Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa. Whoever thought of this idea should be shot directly into the Sun. The effects in general aren’t great, just a string of cartoonish CGI that makes you wonder whether or not there were any physical sets for half the flick, but this, just, wow. I thought the image of Deep Roy playing every Oompa Loompa was unsettling. That’s downright euphoric next to this nightmare fuel. The closest I can compare it to is what Alan Cumming looked like as the Great Gazoo in Viva Rock Vegas, which came out over 20 years ago. The only difference is green instead of orange. Good Lord it’s terrible. But hey, we have to retcon and whitewash the possibility that the Oompa Loompas are slaves somehow, right? So let’s make him a stealth thief stealing back chocolate that his people think is owed to them because Willy in some flashback unknowingly took some of their cocoa beans. What?
Okay, let’s get off this unpleasantness before I make myself sick. I said there were positive elements, so let’s get to those. As mentioned, Chalamet doesn’t do that great of a job being Willy Wonka, but he is still a charismatic character, and every so often he gets a gleam in his eye that just barely reminds you of Gene Wilder. The moments are fleeting, but they’re there. The music, when it’s not directly ripping off the soundtrack of the original film, has some decent stuff. The big number, “A World of Our Own,” performed when Willy first opens his store, is a fun jazzy toe-tapper that I still hum to myself weeks later. It’s legitimately great, and I’m amazed it wasn’t shortlisted for Original Song, especially considering what was. Keegan-Michael Key, bribed into subservience by the cabal, eats so much chocolate that he balloons in size over the course of the picture. It’s a genuinely fun visual, one worthy of Dahl’s imaginative approach, and Key plays it for all it’s worth.
Further, there are some really well done comedic bits, none of which involve Chucklesworth. The best running gag in the entire thing is one where the trio of chocolate bosses try to slyly suggest that Key’s police chief see to it that Willy and others meet with “an unfortunate accident,” only for Matt Lucas to always chime in with, “in which they die” with just a perfect delivery each time. Noodle hatches a plan to allow for Willy and the others to escape their working conditions by fooling Mrs. Scrubitt into thinking that Bleacher is a wealthy Bavarian heir, and their resulting torrid romance is hilarious. Along similar lines, there’s a background side plot involving a zoo security guard (Simon Farnaby) and one of Slugworth’s lackeys (Ellie White) that is richer and sweeter than any confection on display. Honestly, to spoil it would be to ruin the one truly compelling reason to see the movie.
In order to enjoy Wonka, it’s best to look at it as if there was no other cinematic version of Willy Wonka, and that the books had never been written. And that’s the real downfall of the movie for me. As ever, we have to take artistic intent into consideration, and given all the Warner Bros. earmarks, it’s clear that this was the exact outcome they wanted. They want you to replace every version of Wonka you’ve ever known with this one. They want to erase what you loved before, so they can profit off of what they’re putting out now. There is basically no connective tissue between the Willy Wonka we see in this film and the one(s) we knew from literary and filmic tradition, but he’s still marketable. The idea is to sell you what you already have, but pretend it’s new. This even extends to the candy, as theatres stocked up on “special” tie-in gummy Wonka hats that “turn your tongue blue!” for the occasion. In reality they’re just hat-shaped Gushers, and if you’re eating them in a darkened auditorium, you can’t really tell what color your tongue is, but again, that’s the point. They want you to not question it, only consume it, and that, like too much candy, rots your brain.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Has there ever been a prequel worthy of its source material? Is there any life you know to compare with pure imagination? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!