Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at 50: a clumsy film Roald Dahl rightly hated | Movies

When confirmation landed last month as Warner Bros’ planned prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory officially launched – with the directing of Paul King of Paddington and Timothée Chalamet to play the role of the youngest incarnation of Roald Dahl’s wacky chocolatier – the The news was as unsurprising as it was deflated. Origin stories are all the rage these days, and the idea of ​​one for Wonka has been around the industry for a few years now. Are people asking for it? Well, Hollywood franchises tend to operate on an ‘if we build it, they’ll come’ basis lately, so maybe a little Wonka fling is exactly what the masses didn’t know they were. wanted.

Of course, Tim Burton and screenwriter John August tried to forge a Wonka backstory – a lot of Daddy’s trouble, naturally – in the lavish but little precious Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of 2005, and no one cared. a lot. But that was then, when Chalamet was still in shorts: in the Hollywood era, this intellectual property practically crystallized with age.

After all, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the first big-screen release of Dahl’s bestseller in 1964, making Wonka a figure of enduring fascination with generations of children, while the ostensible hero of the story of Dahl – a healthy 11-year-old poppet Charlie Bucket – fainted in his shadow in a top hat. No one has ever expressed interest in the Charlie-based film’s spinoffs, while the 1972 sequel to Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, was not filmed. It’s Wonka, the eerily sadistic man-child magician and reckless capitalist, that people and producers can’t get enough of, and who can blame them? Wonka is strange, dry and impenetrable; Charlie is insanely selfless and harmless.

It was the 1971 Mel Stuart film that stated it most clearly, changing the title of Dahl’s beloved book to make Wonka the eponymous character. Half a century later, his legacy rests on Gene Wilder’s funny and oddly underrated portrayal of Wonka, a sinister and gentle antihero who has haunted as many dreams as he threw memes; much of the movie around it is mechanical and twee by comparison, but you don’t remember those parts, so it doesn’t really matter. Few films this uneven have achieved darling classic status on the strength of a single performance; on the flip side, it was Johnny Depp’s creepy and creepy take on Wonka that largely tarnished the reputation of the 2005 remake, even though Burton’s film easily trumps Stuart’s for its verve and vibrancy. cinematographic.

Dahl himself would be infuriated by the endurance of the 1971 film. Although he was nominally introduced as its screenwriter, his original adaptation was barely detectable under all sorts of uncredited rewrites, and he expressed his disdain for it. result, Wilder and all. His list of grievances was long: Dahl had wanted the British peculiarity of Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers for Wonka, he was not satisfied with the focus of Wonka’s film on Charlie, he resented the modifications and additions to the film. plot that blurred the caveat of his original account. , and he was not a fan of the gay music of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

An author who doesn’t care about a creatively divergent adaptation of his book is of course not a press stoppage scandal. But after watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the first time since my own childhood, where it was a VHS staple of 1980s classrooms and friends’ homes, I’m inclined to think he had right. Stuart’s film is a weird, goofy beast, built from separate parts – a bit of the updated misanthropy of Dahl’s Grimm brothers, many more cuddly trends in 1970s family entertainment, and fading fumes. from the hit Hollywood musical craze of the previous decade – which fit together as elegantly as Lego, Meccano, and Play-Doh.

Stuart, a professional filmmaker hitherto best known for his documentaries and sitcom-style pranks, made it with a breathtaking pace and erratic pace: it’s 45 majestic minutes before Wonka even made his first appearance, after which the film rushes through its fantastic factory sets with professional indifference.

Photograph: Warner Bros./Reuters

The $ 3 million budget was tight, and it shows, until the far too detectable shoot in Munich. The production design of the much-vaunted factory is a feat of papier-mâché ingenuity rather than a free fantasy, often too industrial to capture the imagination: you never want to taste the screen as Wonka invites her guests to lick the wallpaper. (Not to mention the Chocolate River: Why does Augustus Gloop swallow what looks like thin, mud-tinted dishwater?) As a fan of Dahl’s books, I’ve never been very impressed with the movie as a kid, and now I see why: the book invites mental images of almost impossible scale and extravagance, while in the movie you feel the corners and ceiling of every space .

Stuart’s film sums up what made Dahl’s children’s books, for all their fast-paced plot and vivid imagery, so difficult to film. Almost every other creator’s attempt to wrestle with his singularly morbid and provocative storytelling sensibility – that gleefully cruel side that delighted sentimental children even though it confused many of their parents – plays the role of compromise. (Witches, Nicolas Roeg’s cheerfully vicious, rustic version of Dahl’s most terrifying book, approached it, only to bottle it up with a modified and simplified happy ending that enraged the author as well.)

And so the film honors Wonka’s antisocial and hostile self-control to the children, to the point of leaving the fates of most of her young characters hanging in the air. (The book’s coda, detailing child survival, is stripped from a rushed finale.) Yet it also dulls it in star-eyed romance, right from the opening bars of her signature song Candy Man, which features Wonka as a visionary who spreads joy. who only wants to give taste to the world. Is he an idealist of pure imagination, or a shrewd business opportunist and colonizer of cultures? The film defused the NAACP-fueled controversy over Wonka’s Team Oompa-Loompa’s racial portrayal by making them orange-faced alien beings, but the bitter taste remains.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory never decide who he is, and after half a century the movie – despite Wilder’s inspired and scintillating spin – still isn’t comfortable. Will Hollywood’s next attempt to solve the Wonka conundrum finally figure it out? There is a good chance that Dahl will continue to roll over in his grave, even if, as he himself wrote: “You should never, ever doubt something that no one is sure about.”


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Jamie Collins

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