A prequel film for a beloved pop culture figure is almost always a bad idea. The mythical, vague qualities of those that tend to stick out as characters rely on a bit of mystery so that the audience can fill in the gaps with their imagination. Writing and performances that are confident in our intelligence put us into the story far better than having everything spelled out. Han Solo is cool. A random guy given the name “Solo” because of what amounts to lazy military enlistment is not cool at all. So, news that Warner Bros. is actually moving forward with Wonka—a prequel film about the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory owner/eccentric—already makes me think it’s going to have bad, bad results. And that’s not even considering that the source material’s main information on Willy Wonka’s past is that he was a slaver.
Willy Wonka’s already been solidified into the pop culture canon by an incredible, unhinged, funny and moving performance by Gene Wilder in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Hell, even Johnny Depp did something relatively memorable with the character in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake. To try to compete with those for a prequel story is studio IP addiction at its worst. Sure, Paddington director Paul King has certainly proven himself with classic British staples, but the sweet bear certainly has a less checkered past than Wonka.
Wonka’s present is already questionable enough, what with his Saw-like series of deadly candy seductions designed to weed out any undesirable kids. But his past—how exactly he staffed his factory with Oompa-Loompas—is something that was criticized so deeply during the ‘70s that Roald Dahl himself rewrote his book. The brief synopsis of Wonka that’s been released notes that the film will be about “a young Willy Wonka and his adventures prior to opening the world’s most famous chocolate factory.” The only “adventures” really touched on in 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory involves Wonka smuggling Oompa-Loompas out of Africa. They were “imported” in “crates with holes” from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before” in the original text, which depicted them as straight-up African Pygmy people. Nope, they didn’t always come from “Loompaland.” Probably not a past worth visiting for a children’s film.
C.N.E. Corbin does a great job unpacking how wildly racist that is, in all its detail, while Dahl biographer Jeremy Treglown explains Dahl’s history with the characters. In Roald Dahl: A Biography, Treglown notes that the first illustrator approached for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory passed because of the racist Oompa-Loompas and that eventually their “episodes were rewritten and redrawn.” That revision came after Mel Stuart’s excellent movie decided that making its Oompa-Loompas African was a bad, bad look and changed them into Trump-skinned, green-haired songsters. Dahl (a thoroughly racist guy in general) eventually rewrote things more in the movie’s image after criticism from the NAACP and a public back-and-forth with author/critic Eleanor Cameron, releasing a new 1973 edition that made them a bit more fantastical. They still got shipped out from their homes to work/live in a factory and get a salary of literal beans. The text only slightly shifted towards subtext. But we’re not here to relitigate Dahl’s racism—just the racist behavior exhibited by one of his characters that’s apparently getting a prequel movie.
Young Wonka doesn’t have a lot of canonical backstory associated with him. His parentage (a dentist dad, Wilbur) is an invention by Burton and his writer, John August. His early days as a chocolate mogul are only hinted at and mostly involve corporate espionage, something we all know kids love. What else remains but the colonizer/factory owner’s relationship with his indentured workers? His time spent in the lab developing Wonka Bars? His history with Arthur Slugworth/Mr. Wilkinson? Long dumb scenes defining his love affair with the color purple?
A Wonka prequel is a stupid idea, but it also dredges up facets of the story that those looking to cash in on the IP would probably like left forgotten. Maybe the film has an exceptional original script full of zany ideas, but if Hollywood’s recent run of origins and prequels is anything to go by, it’ll all be straightforward and hamfisted explanations of an iconic character’s tics. If Willy Wonka goes down to Loompaland (“what a terrible country it is,” according to the book, “nothing but desolate wastes and fierce beasts”) to liberate its residents right into his factory, Wonka’s going to become the gold standard for what not to do with a film property.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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