When I first saw a link to a trailer for Wonka, a 2023 prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Timothée Chalamet, I was prepared for the worst. And I was pleasantly surprised when I could find nothing wrong with it; it looked perfectly charming.
After seeing it, I was happy to see that it is charming (albeit far from perfectly) from the start. It begins with the three repeated notes from “Pure Imagination” — which work so well because they are vaguely creepily discordant — before launching into an original opening song confidently introducing Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka.
I should admit from the start that I was almost hoping to find fault in Chalamet’s performance, and by the end of the first song, I gave up and just resigned to having to acknowledge that sometimes famous people are just good at stuff. I think he did an exceptional job creating a version of the character that is at the opposite end of Gene Wilder’s version — all of the optimism and kind-heartedness and almost-compulsive showmanship and eagerness to make people happy, but before decades of seeing people’s greed (and excessive gum-chewing and TV-watching) put a darker and more melancholy spin on it.
Which is, more or less, my most significant criticism of the movie: it delivers exactly what is promised on the poster, wonderfully, but no more than that. It’s an often-delightful and imaginative children’s movie about imagination and hope, with tons of people doing excellent work to sell every moment, but there’s little sense of a unique voice.
Or I should say: there’s a unique voice in the presentation, but not the underlying material. I haven’t seen either of the Paddington movies, but as I understand them, this is exactly what Paul King excels at. Fantasy versions of European cities with broad villains and virtuous heroes, with a cast of mostly-British performers completely on board to make something wonderful.
But in Wonka there’s little trace of the specific voice that helped make it so unique. I would’ve said “so memorable,” but I’m realizing that like everybody else, I’ve got a selective memory of the original. Which, to be fair, came out in the year I was born, so it’s had 52 years to imprint itself on all of us, letting us vividly remember certain parts while glossing over others.
I’d been harboring selective snapshot memory of the original, in which Roald Dahl, Anthony Newly, Gene Wilder, and Mel Stuart all conspired to be the OG edgelords. Here’s a family movie musical about a magical candy maker, but get this sick twist: he not-so-secretly hates children!
That fit in with my rough idea of Dahl and of the filmmakers being lovable curmudgeons, grouchily scolding The Kids Today with their gum and their Tee Vees and their temper tantrums, and punishing them inordinately for just being kids. And then singing about it! That edge is what gives it depth, right? It’s a timeless formula of looks-sweet-but-is-actually-sinister, and you could toss in iPads and Videogames and Tik Tok dances and have a perfectly good 21st century update.
But while the delightful-but-toothless Wonka is unlikely to be a decades-beloved classic, it elevates itself above “fun but unnecessary” by giving a new context to the original. Seeing the character in his youth, before he’s become a world-famous recluse in his magical candy factory, reminds us where the real lasting depth of the original — and again, Gene Wilder’s incredibly insightful take on the character — comes from: he doesn’t just “hate children,” obviously; he’s disappointed in them.1And their parents for indulging them, don’t forget!
As a kid who watched so much television growing up, I always thought the original movie was more than a little unfair to Mike Teevee. The other kids were being selfish and greedy, but he was just a young man with a healthy appreciation for popular media. What was that all about?
It makes more sense when you remember those three notes at the start of “Pure Imagination,” and how Gene Wilder put a wistful and melancholy spin on the song. And its placement in Wonka, at the end of the movie, after the character has been challenged not simply by greed and corruption, but by reality. He’d had one naive dream that drove everything he did, and he realized that that dream was still valid, but metaphorical.
The song “Pure Imagination” isn’t just an invitation, like it reads on the surface, but someone mourning something that he’d lost. Or at least, he’d lost the “pure” version, which only the children were still capable of. The grouchiness comes from seeing children wasting this pure and perfect period of their lives that they’ll never get back again.
Most of the songs in Wonka are catchy in the moment, but they evaporate the moment they’re over. It’d be easy to have a selective memory of the original, and assume all of its songs were bangers, but it bears reminding ourselves of the dated and schmaltzy song “The Candy Man,” and how it was deliberately constructed to be the commercial hit. To their credit, the songs in Wonka are all in the spirit of a genuine musical and drive the story forward.
And most importantly: Wonka doesn’t just bring back the old songs we love out of nothing more than “remember this song you like?” nostalgia. It uses them sparingly, and always as a sign it’s about to change or re-contextualize something from the original. In addition to “Pure Imagination,” it brings back the Oompa-Loompa song as foreshadowing, and then has Hugh Grant delivering the song2And dance! to give a new back story to how Wonka and the Oompa Loompas first met. It gets rid of the weird and dark colonialism of the original version3I admit I’ve never read the book, and I probably shouldn’t just take social media’s version of it as gospel, but it does seem unnecessary and tonally inappropriate, even for the time it was written., and most fittingly, it’s scolding Wonka for something he did wrong in his youth, in rhyme.
It might be unfair, but I think it’s interesting to contrast Wonka with another attempt to put a modern spin on the original, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That movie definitely hasn’t aged well, and it seems more unnecessary with every year that goes by.4The only gag I remember from it as being clever also seems like an unnecessary addition that was funny in the moment, but not fitting the tone of the rest of the material: when Wonka is shown in a flashback touring the countries of the world, and then we discover that he was just walking through a flag museum. I think the gag in Wonka about premium economy seemed similarly out of place. That’s largely because there’s an undercurrent of arrogance to it, a sense that they’re deliberately ignoring the 1971 version and instead delivering a true adaptation of the book. I wasn’t left with the sense that it added anything. And Johnny Depp’s version of the character felt more like a case of “look at handsome actor Johnny Depp being fey and weird!” instead of actually creating a character with depth.
So it’s significant that Wonka‘s callbacks to the original movie aren’t simply references trying to cash in on a beloved classic, but signs of where they’re attempting to add to the original.
My first take was that Wonka was lacking any of the edge or depth of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Its villains are exactly as broad as they’re supposed to be for a fantasy like this, but they’re also vague and generic. They’re the “bad guys,” and the only universal evils that the movie’s taking a stand against are greed, corruption, and over-indulgence. The only actual child in the movie is as purely virtuous as Charlie Bucket, but without his arc: she’s never tempted to stray from the path, or even to give in to hopelessness. She spends the whole movie doing the right thing and then getting a happy ending.
But then, again thanks to the placement of “Pure Imagination” at the end of the story, I realized that Wonka isn’t trying to do the same thing. The character arc is Willy Wonka’s, and it now takes place over two stories: meeting a child who’s become world-weary from a lifetime of being treated unfairly, losing his own naivety but holding onto a spark of optimism, trying to rekindle his child-like wonder by sharing it with children who only desire instant gratification, and then being reminded that there is real virtue in the world.
And while I really enjoyed the movie overall, I have to talk about the one thing that was a huge downer: Keegan-Michael Key in fat suits. It’s just such a bummer in a movie that’s otherwise so joyful and inclusive.
To be fair, you can kind of see how the movie tries to justify it. There’s a fairly wide range of body types5And ethnicities, and accents across the cast, both among villains and heroes, and so there’s a weak effort to suggest that the character’s “sin” isn’t that he’s fat, but that he’s corrupt and over-indulgent. But even if that weren’t suspect, it’d still be too subtle in a movie this broad, where the punchline is repeatedly “look at how fat he is, isn’t that funny and bad.”
I really, really wish Hollywood would mature enough to understand that fat suits aren’t okay, and anyone making one, or getting fitted for one, should immediately question what’s going on. There’s never any justification for it, and it doesn’t do anything except make people in the audience feel bad. And in the case of Wonka, it was a really unpleasant fart in the middle of an otherwise delightful movie.
- 1And their parents for indulging them, don’t forget!
- 2And dance!
- 3I admit I’ve never read the book, and I probably shouldn’t just take social media’s version of it as gospel, but it does seem unnecessary and tonally inappropriate, even for the time it was written.
- 4The only gag I remember from it as being clever also seems like an unnecessary addition that was funny in the moment, but not fitting the tone of the rest of the material: when Wonka is shown in a flashback touring the countries of the world, and then we discover that he was just walking through a flag museum. I think the gag in Wonka about premium economy seemed similarly out of place.
- 5And ethnicities, and accents