Warner Bros. just announced plans for a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel movie titled Wonka, an idea that encapsulates the phrase, “nobody asked for this.” According to the Hollywood Reporter, it follows “a young Willy Wonka and his adventures prior to opening the world’s most famous chocolate factory.” Paul King is slated to direct; the filmmaker behind the (genuinely brilliant) Paddington movies.
This news was met with derision because Wonka sounds like a parody of unnecessary Hollywood reboots. In his original form, Willy Wonka is like a kid-friendly equivalent of Hannibal Lecter or the Joker: A compellingly bizarre villain who injects chaos into normal people’s lives. He will definitely not benefit from a backstory explaining his motives. The main thing we know about his past is a dubious colonial fantasy narrative about him “rescuing” the Oompa-Loompas from their native land and setting them to work in his factory. Not exactly heartwarming family comedy material.
There’s also something tragically absurd about Warner Bros. trying to turn a classic Roald Dahl character into blockbuster franchise fodder. It’s all too easy to imagine a room full of executives working their way down a list of well-known properties owned by Warner Bros., deciding which beloved characters have the best brand recognition for a reboot. “Willy Wonka backstory prequel” is not a good idea for a movie. But it is a good idea for a marketing campaign because everyone’s heard of Willy Wonka already, and Warner Bros. won’t have to risk anything on a new, untested concept.
Willy Wonka is, of course, iconic. But that’s actually part of the problem. While Johnny Depp made an attempt in 2005, Gene Wilder’s version of the character still reigns supreme; an unnervingly manic figure who positively thrums with chaotic energy. He’s colossally weird, in a way that simply isn’t permitted in modern studio blockbusters. And unlike Johnny Depp’s depiction, which included flashbacks to Willy Wonka’s abusive childhood at the hands of a cruel dentist father (!?), Gene Wilder requires no explanation. He’s also a prominent timeline fixture as a classic meme template.
Instinctively, we know this kind of prequel is a bad idea. If a character’s origin story isn’t already woven into their role, then we rarely benefit from learning more after the fact. That’s why Solo: A Star Wars Story was a disappointment, and why Dracula Untold sank without trace. Most people don’t want to explore a less-interesting period in Han Solo’s life, or find out what Dracula was like before he became a cool Victorian vampire. The same goes for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a prequel that adds laborious worldbuilding to the backstory of Alien, a film that thrived on a sense of unknowable mystery.
Warner Bros. is reportedly eyeing Timothee Chalamet and Tom Holland for the lead role, which is basically just a standard shortlist of young white men in Hollywood. People on Twitter have come up with some more interesting options like LaKeith Stanfield, Andre 3000, and Janelle Monae, all of whom have the theatricality and/or edginess required for the role. But to be honest, casting isn’t the issue here. Disney’s live-action Aladdin proved that you can hire a superstar like Will Smith to play a beloved character, but a pointless cash-grab is still a pointless cash-grab. The same goes for the star-studded casts of the live-action Dumbo and Lion King. The whole process for making something like Wonka—from pitching a story, to recruiting a respectable director and A-list stars—is all designed to counteract a fundamental flaw at the heart of the film: It’s not a good idea.
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