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Willy Wonka Was Never Meant to Be the Star of His Own Movie

Timothée Chalamet’s ‘Wonka’ has good intentions, but its entire premise is built on peeling back the layers of a character whose best quality is being shrouded in mystery

Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

There are many reasons why we keep returning to Willy Wonka, the enigmatic chocolatier first depicted in Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We’re still drawn to the mystery (whatever happened to those kids anyway?), the whimsy, the Everlasting Gobstoppers, the memes, and so on. But even after a third film adaptation of the iconic character—Paul King’s prequel, Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet, released in theaters over the weekend—Wonka’s most memorable moment on-screen might still be his first. About 45 minutes into 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder’s titular candy tycoon saunters down a red carpet toward a crowd of onlookers, with the assistance of a cane, making possibly his first public appearance. All goes quiet except for the tap of the cane, until Wonka stops dead in his tracks. He slowly falls forward, as if he’s about to collapse, before suddenly flipping into a somersault—prompting roaring applause.

Wilder claimed the storied scene was his pitch, implying it was essential to take on the role: “From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth,” he recalled telling director Mel Stuart. Establishing that contradiction in the character’s first scene was important—what makes the moment so effective is the mythos of Wonka that looms large over the film’s opening 45 minutes. We learn about his character through others: from Charlie as he peers into Wonka’s closed-off factory; from Grandpa Joe’s explanation that spies attempted to steal Wonka’s recipes; from the media frenzy that ensues when it’s announced Wonka will allow visitors in his factory for the first time. The man himself, though, is kept off-screen. Introducing Wonka with a moment of deception only heightens that mystery. It homes in on what makes the character interesting without offering too many details to diminish the intrigue.

Enter the new Wonka, which seeks to more deeply explore that intrigue and answer lingering questions surrounding the chocolatier. With Chalamet in the title role, the film explores Wonka’s salad days as he attempts to open his first candy store. Wonka befriends a lost child named “Noodle” (Calah Lane), who helps him run an underground candy operation as powerful chocolate makers attempt to run Wonka out of town. Along the way, we learn that his affinity for sweet treats came from his late mother (Sally Hawkins), whom he’s seeking to spiritually reconnect with as he pursues a candy career. This is also when Wonka meets an Oompa Loompa for the first time, though Hugh Grant would probably rather have us forget that part.

King, who previously directed the acclaimed Paddington films, has received generally positive reviews for his Wonka adaptation. The film is definitely abundant in affection for the source material, which many IP adaptations often lack. But the fact that Wonka’s mystique has long been established as his defining characteristic presents a fundamental flaw in the prequel’s premise. Why would we want to know the backstory of a character whose whole appeal is based on being a question mark? Even as King’s film attempts some deception of its own, it ultimately never overcomes this obstacle. Not only is attempting to fill the gaps in Wonka’s biography a fool’s errand in itself, but Wonka attempts to do so with a tired cliché. Giving Wonka a dead mother who once made him chocolate may not be as nonsensical as giving Cruella de Vil a mother who was killed by dalmatians, but it’s still deep into trope territory (along with the film’s dated fat jokes). The only purpose of Hawkins’s nameless character is to provide Wonka with a thin level of motivation for his actions. Giving this character such a conventional origin story, which also involves reuniting Noodle with her long-lost mother, only waters down what made the character interesting. Chalamet attempts to channel Wilder’s portrayal, like in his “strike that, reverse it” reference seen in Wonka’s trailer, but the film’s flawed premise is ultimately not conducive to capturing the character’s most compelling qualities.

In addition to being antithetical to the character’s charm, Wonka’s attempt at establishing a backstory is repetitive. Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also included an origin story for the candy kingpin, inventing the character of Dr. Wilbur Wonka, Willy’s dentist father, who was not in Dahl’s original novel. As a result, Burton’s adaptation ran into the same problems Wonka does (Wilder went as far as to call the film an “insult”). The 2005 film begins by referencing Wonka’s backstory in its opening scene, showing flashbacks of Grandpa Joe’s time working for the chocolate empire, which immediately chips away at the candy man’s mystique. But the introduction of Wonka’s childhood is where the film really loses the plot—giving Willy Wonka a dentist father who forbade him from eating candy might actually be as ridiculous as Cruella’s mom’s death by dalmatians. Wonka’s insistence on taking another stab at this backstory only to result in a more generic version of Burton’s attempt just emphasizes the ineffectiveness of the endeavor. Wonka is such an enigma in the world of Chocolate Factory that his behavior has even inspired harebrained fan theories about the character, but that didn’t mean we were looking for definitive answers. Audiences were just engaging with the character as intended.

After all this time, Stuart’s 1971 adaptation remains the definitive version because it understands Wonka is a character who simultaneously calls for a big personality and a minor amount of exposition. Funnily enough, Dahl himself disowned the 1971 film, with one of his key criticisms being that the film focused too much on Wonka rather than the true main character, Charlie (which is reflected in the change of the title character from book to screen). While it’s true that Stuart’s film does recognize that Willy Wonka is a more interesting character than Charlie, it understands that keeping Wonka at a distance is essential to maintaining that allure.

In the buildup to Wonka’s first appearance on-screen, the film relishes in absurdist vignettes emphasizing people’s obsession with Wonka’s chocolate. This includes a woman who hesitates to pay her kidnapped husband’s ransom with her supply of Wonka bars and a computer developed to pinpoint the exact location of Wonka’s remaining Golden Tickets—scenes that seem like whimsical throwaways but actually provide more meaningful context for Wonka’s larger-than-life persona than a generic backstory ever could. Stuart’s film also finds that Charlie is more useful to lead the film as a blank slate: a child’s eyes through which the audience views the wonder of Wonka. The chocolatier was never meant to be the star of his own film, but rather a seemingly mythical figure looming over the story, whose success and magnetism are almost unexplainable. Wonka’s first mistake was trying to unravel the mystery.