Why we keep coming back to the weird, wonderful world of Willy Wonka

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, December 21, 2023 - 11:42am

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Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka
Jaap Buittendijk/Warner Bros.
Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka in Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “WONKA”

Timothée Chalamet stars in a “WONKA,” prequel of sorts to the famous “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” But he’s not the first — or the second — star to take on this iconic role. 

There was, of course, the 1971 original rendition by the great Gene Wilder, whose sometimes unhinged Wonka became an icon. And then there was the 2005 version with an even weirder Johnny Depp. 

So why do we keep returning to this odd and interesting character?

To find out, The Show got a hold of longtime Valley film critic Barbara VanDenburgh, who told us she grew up watching the original version of the film.

BARBARA VANDENBURGH: My memories of the original Willy Wonka movie are of just catching it on television all the time. And, you know, it’s interesting. It didn’t — like a lot of the beloved classics now — it didn’t do crazy well at the box office upon release. It was generally well-received, but it wasn’t some blockbuster runaway hit. And over time, as it played on television and got rented on home media — when home media became available in the 1980s, the movie’s from 1971 — when we were able to watch movies at her home and rent VHS tapes, that’s really when the original “Willy Wonka” really became a staple of family cinema.

LAUREN GILGER: I didn’t know that. That’s fascinating. So it wasn’t like an immediate classic. It became a classic.

VANDENBURGH: Yeah, became a classic over time. It was a reliable hit to watch with the kids, to watch with family. I remember seeing it on television all the time. I didn’t have cable. And so there are specific movies that got played on public television constantly that are part of my fabric of my childhood. And the original “Willy Wonka is one of them.”

GLIGER: That’s really interesting. What do you love about it? What did you love about it as a kid?

VANDENBURGH: It’s weird! I love children’s entertainment — books, movies — that that is weird and experimental and a little bit dark. One of the things that appeals to me about Roald Dahl’s stories and adaptations in general is that he’s very darkly comedic. There’s a very wicked sense of humor. There’s a real feeling — I just rewatched the original “Willy Wonka” with Gene Wilder — and there is a real feeling that this man might kill these children.

barbara vandenburgh
Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic
Barbara VanDenburgh is books editor at USA Today.

GILGER: Oh yeah, yeah.

VANDENBURGH: There’s a sense of danger that makes it exciting. And even as an adult, you’re watching it. It’s a movie that plays across all age ranges. You can watch it as a child and get something out of it and watch it as an adult and get something totally different out of it.

GILGER: Yeah. What do you think of Gene Wilder in that? Like, why was he so iconic in that role?

VANDENBURGH: Genius. … He uses his body. He uses his word delivery. He crafted this character that’s really indelible. Like if you see Willy Wonka, you get a picture of him immediately. You see the coat, you see the hat, you see the hair, you see the twinkle in his eye and the cane. And he just created really an indelible character. And he’s a brilliant performer, a brilliant comedic performer. And he plays it with this sense of danger and unpredictability. You don’t know what he’s going to do in any given scene and you think, “Well, maybe he’ll kill these children.”

But also he’s able to deliver the warm and fuzzies, delivers this ending that’s really heartfelt. And you believe that he’s a good person. And so he's just made this, like, multi-layered, kind of intricately faceted character who reads differently if you hold him in a certain lights. And, you know, Gene Wilder is just a genius.

GILGER: Yeah. So then there have been several versions of this now over the years. We of course, had the Johnny Depp version that was sort of even weirder in the middle. And now there’s this latest film called “Wonka” with Timothée Chalamet, which is sort of like a prequel, right? Like a young Willy Wonka. Tell us — no spoilers — but tell us, what do you make of this film?

VANDENBURGH: Well, let me go back to the the the Johnny Depp-Tim Burton version from I believe 2005. And let me just say that I think it’s to me it reads like an abomination. I really dislike it. And Gene Wilder actually called that movie an insult. He was not a fan of it either. What that version did, what the Tim Burton version did — and I know I know opinions differ on this. If you grew up as a child and that was your Willy Wonka, I know that there was a generation younger than me that likes the movie more than I do, that didn’t grow up necessarily watching the Gene Wilder version. So just because I think it’s an abomination doesn’t mean it’s inherently an abomination.


VANDENBURGH: But what that movie did was it told the same story, but it hewed closer to the book. It was trying to be a more direct adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book. So it’s the same movie, but updated and with different details because it’s trying to hew closer to the original novel.

This new version with Timothée Chalamet is doing something totally different. It’s not an adaptation of any Roald Dahl book. They’ve crafted a backstory for Willy Wonka as a young man played by Timothée Chalamet, trying to make his way as a chocolatier in the world. So they’ve got some more free rein to tell different types of stories because it’s not a straightforward adaptation.

So it's an interesting thing. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of prequels. They’re very popular right now. Yeah, there was just a prequel that got released for “The Hunger Games,” “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” that was really quite good. So prequels are very, very popular right now and so this is sort of on trend.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah, on trend in that sense. So this of course, sparked some debate in the film world about the best Willy Wonka right to claim that role. It sounds like you would clearly be in the Gene Wilder camp here. But I wonder, what do you make of the fact that we keep remaking this film? This film in particular, like this isn’t a superhero thing, right? This is different.

VANDENBURGH: Well, it’s not the only Roald Dahl adaptation that we’ve done repeated versions of. Like, he wrote the novel that the movie “The Witches” is based off of. There’s a 1980s film starring Anjelica Huston, and they remade that in 2020 starring Anne Hathaway. So we do revisit Roald Dahl stories, and there are other children’s books that there are endless iterations of, right? How many dozens of versions of”Peter Pan” are there? Or dozens of versions of “Alice in Wonderland”?

And I think what they all have in common is their staying power. These are stories that last the test of time. You know, Roald Dahl is a bit more recent than “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” and “Wizard of Oz,” but he’s got that secret sauce that makes his stories last the test of time. And I think it’s because they’re distinctive. The characters are memorable. He has a dark and specific sense of humor, and it just lends itself to endless iterations because we’re endlessly entertained by Roald Dahl. He's lasted the test of time.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. There’s definitely something about those stories in general.

VANDENBURGH: I think part of it, too, is just a business decision. Like, there are so many film decisions that are getting made based on IP. What existing property that we already have the rights to can we re-imagine? I think a lot of it is a business decision.

So the new Willy Wonka movie is interesting because it doesn’t really have anything to do with Willy Wonka. It’s charming. I actually enjoyed it, but not as a Willy Wonka movie. I just kind of enjoyed it as a family film. It’s about a young man. Timmy Chalamet is very charming. It’s a musical, which I didn’t realize because they didn’t advertise it very much like a musical. You will have a perfectly enjoyable time at the movies, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Willy Wonka.

I think it’s more of a business decision where we can take this character that we have the rights to that people recognize and that might draw them into the theater. So I think in this case, it’s very much, it’s probably a bit more calculated.

GILGER: Always comes down to a little bit of a calculation in the film industry. All right. Well, we’ll leave it there. That is Barbara Vandenberg, communications manager with the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at ASU. And, of course, a longtime film critic herself. Barbara, thank you so much for coming back on The Show. I really appreciate it.

VANDENBURGH: Anytime. Thank you for having me.

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