I’ve got the perfect puzzle for you… what makes this character so memorable?
Timothée Chalamet is back and dazzling us once again with his incredible ability to pull off a waist coat. If you haven’t been distracted lately by the overwhelming success of Dune or the super-human angles of his jaw-line, you might have noticed an interesting new post on his Instagram: a sneak-peak of his upcoming film Wonka. Now, before this gets released and chucked onto the ever-growing prequel pile (currently inhabited by dog murderers), it might be worth taking a step back and looking at the famed Willy Wonka in a bit more detail.
A beloved character since 1964, this eccentric embodiment of UNICEF’s worst nightmare has had multiple incarnations over the years. Some good, some with a really unattractive bob haircut. We’ll ignore the clapping, tinny version Johnny Depp gave us and consider who really gave the character of Willy Wonka more cultural mileage: Roald Dahl or Gene Wilder.
While Roald Dahl’s book (and the excellent sci-fi sequel) gave us a touching and imaginative reflection on a dissatisfied billionaire, and somehow managed to endear to us a character who manipulates children into ruthless competition (the more I write this, the more I’m starting to get a President Snow vibe), it was the 1971 film that brought this enchantingly chaotic world to life. As in the book, Wilder’s Wonka is a blend of innocent joy and unhinged financial privilege, yet he still manages to inject a softer grace and warmth that makes him the perfect childhood idol. His quiet rendition of ‘Imagination’ gives us a gentle insight into the character’s desire to spread fun and his opening somersault is an iconic introduction into his wicked sense of humour.
Wilder’s crazy-eyed grin is not isolated to the film itself, and has spun out into many other parts of pop-culture. Yes, it’s now outdated but the Condescending Wonka image became a foundation for many a meme. Plus who could ever forget the nightmarish tunnel sequence? Frightening children back then and being used for internet commentary now, if you’ve never been uncomfortably close to someone odd in a club then look to this scene for reference. And lastly, the sweet sounds of the Candyman song, originally written for this movie, have graced the jingles of the world ever since.
Of course, it’s important to remember that Roald Dahl hated this film, so much so that he insisted it be called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rather than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He hated that Wonka was given so much prevalence over Charlie himself. But why not? Charlie might be the vehicle but Wonka is the driver of this story. Charlie’s core goodness merely comes across as bland innocence and a naivety about the selfishness of Grandpa Joe. There is no shortage of children’s books with a pure, young protagonist who triumphs over evil, even in Dahl’s own repertoire—I would sooner recommend Matilda for a compelling lead. But there aren’t many worlds with a character like Wonka: a man who embodies the clown both in zany fun and creepy smiles, and a man who sticks in the memory for good and bad reasons.
So, Timothée Chalamet, I hope you’re prepared for a challenge because our love-hate relationship with Willy Wonka has been around for a long time and will probably continue for years to come.