Everyone’s favourite New Yorker Timothee Chalamet just let slip a sneak peek at his forthcoming role as the latest incarnation of Willy Wonka in the Paul King-directed Wonka. The actor posted the BTS shot to Twitter and Instagram with the infamous Wonka line: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last.”
I have an even simpler wish. I just hope it’s good. Actually, truth to be told, I’m not sure why we even need another attempt at recreating a character so perfectly executed by the late Gene Wilder.
There’s few things this author holds sacred – cheesecake, the truth that cats are the superior pet and the 1997 Prada menswear campaign – but the original 1971 film of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is definitely part of that circle.
Wilder’s performance as a demented chocolatemaker who delights in the torture of children is flawless. That scene where Wonka takes his guests in a hollowed out pink candy boat down the chocolate river into the Tunnel of Terror? The endless nightmares this scene caused? Classic.
Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka as a combination of manic genius, exuberant showman and sinister master manipulator made him the perfect anti-hero. He wasn’t a good man. He wasn’t a bad one. He was a strange man. And unpredictable. Which made him more of a monster had he just been an out and out villain because kids couldn’t pin him down in their simple black and white understanding of the world. It was psychological warfare rather than goodies vs baddies.
When Johnny Depp donned the purple with Tim Burton at the helm, it’s true that this version was more to the book. But it also lost that menacing element that made the original such a trip. Comical mishaps, the prosthetics, and affected idiosyncrasies of Depp’s Wonka fail to hold a candle to the sociopathic Wilder. It felt schmaltzy.
It could be argued that the reluctance to see beloved characters revisited is simply stubborn nostalgia – we LIKE what we are familiar with. And that’s true for probably plenty of remakes, origin stories or continuations of a franchise.
But there’s also a trend for these same remakes, origin stories or continuations of a franchise to adopt a sense of cuteness to them. To lose that edge that made the original so good.
We saw this with another remake of a Roald Dahl favourite, The Witches. Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch was a high camp performance worthy of a John Waters film. The peeling away of her face to reveal the hideousness beneath, the drag queens in the audience who made up her coven of witches – brilliant.
Anne Hathaway clearly enjoyed herself in the same role for the modern-day makeover movie by Robert Zemeckis but rather than a mistress of evil we got a pantomime of Marlene Dietrich.
(Which, to be fair, was also Huston’s schtick. But Huston hit the right notes of restraint which, in the right circumstances, is totally piss-your-pants scary. And in a Vogue-styled wardrobe no less. Maybe Hathaway was simply trying to avoid comparisons to Miranda Priestly and chose chaos instead.)
With Wilder’s version of Wonka (and The Witches and plenty more) the filmmakers hit upon a magical formula that seems to have been forgotten. A children’s film that was designed to terrorise children.
In comparison, today it feels as though production companies are more interested in creating long-form memes than actual movies.
Which brings us to our current situation of Willy Wonka played by Timothee “Pronounced Timotay Like The ‘80s Shampoo” Chalamet.
According to my colleague at Grazia, the boy wonder’s version is a prequel to Wonka’s chocolate factory antics. Little detail has been revealed as to whether it will veer towards the garish CGI end of the spectrum of Burton’s version or if it will pick up where Wilder and director Mel Stuart left off and bring back that sublime sense of sinisterness.
If it did, it would be a refreshing turn of pace for modern films that revisit such iconic characters. Sensibilities have admittedly changed over the years. Imagine a children’s film showing chicken’s beheading with today’s helicopter parents ready to pounce on social media. Personally, I think the film industry has suffered for it as has the richness of storytelling.
When you’re a kid, the world is kind of scary. But that also made it fun. It’s why kids love roller coasters and playing hide and seek or murder in the dark. Being scared added to the fun. Most of our most familiar fairy tales are, at their heart, dark fantasy stories that rarely had happy endings.
Dahl infamously loathed the 1971 film when it first came out. He also hated The Witches (although he loved Huston in the role). He thought it veered too far from the book, and he hated the casting of Wilder. He also hated the songs as being too sentimental.
But what works in books – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – doesn’t always translate into film.
The caretakers of Dahl’s estate were in tight control of Burton’s version of the film which may have had a lot to do with the end result.
Maybe they’ll learn their lesson and let Timmy C. and King do their thing with a character that embodies the best of both hero and villain.
At least Chalamet has the moves to do a Wilder-esque jig.
CLIP FROM THE REHEARSALpic.twitter.com/R7IHQo7327
— Wiosna Pustyni (@Atrydka) October 10, 2021