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Discussions with Damaris

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  • Damaris Chanza

Something About Wonka Just Wasn't Quite Right

Diving down a YouTube black hole is the first time I saw the trailer for Wonka. I can't quite remember my initial reaction, but it didn't register that the movie was a musical until I asked George if he wanted to watch it with me, and he adamantly stated, "Nah, it looks like a musical."

I didn't think about it again until my siblings decided we should all see it.

Wonka is the spiritual prequel to the 1971 Roald Dahl adaption, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Timothée Chalamet stars as the titular character before he was so famous children were jonesing for a golden ticket opportunity to tour his chocolate factory.

In true theatre nature, the film starts with a grand musical number where Willy Wonka is finally ashore after a seven-year journey collecting the most obscure and delicious ingredients for the chocolate he wants to sell. "A Hatful of Dreams" is probably one of the most memorable songs because of the way it sets up the narrative. He starts with 12 silver sovereigns and is left with nothing by the end of the song. The dance for the song foreshadows the entire movie when he takes one step forward and two steps back on a staircase.

None of the other songs had much memorability to them. The lyrics were narrative-based and helped move the story along, but they didn't have anything catchy enough to have me humming the tune on the walk back to my car. The wintery vagueness of the sets and costumes reminded me of the discount Christmas puzzle I bought from Hobby Lobby. It gives the film a timeless feel that will benefit it as it ages.

Each actor was wholly committed to the whimsical characters they played. Chalamet's commitment to Willy Wonka's weird optimism was refreshing after his serious performance in Dune. Despite his performance, I couldn't help but wonder where the cynicism was. If Chalamet's Willy Wonka is supposed to be the younger version of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, what happened to him between Wonka and Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory? What makes him go from a gleeful, trusting man to someone who tests children in deceptively cruel ways and describes the world as weary?

Despite the uncertainty of the time between films, it's clear that Willy learns and evolves from the events in Wonka. At the film's start, Wonka admits he can't read, leading to his indentured servitude for not reading the fine print. Noodle, an orphan girl played by Calah Lane, who becomes his best friend, starts teaching him. By the end of Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory, Wonka can read perfectly and reminds Charlie of the contract he signed at the start of his tour. Considering that Noodle learns her mother lives in a library, it's nice to assume that Noodle and Wonka continue their friendship and reading lessons.

Although Wonka was endowed with joy and nostalgia, it wasn't that memorable for someone intimately familiar with Roald Dahl's work. It was whimsical but not enough; the world-building was timeless but not quite right. Something about it was just off, but why does that matter? The kid sitting a few seats down from me was so enthralled in every second of the movie that he was completely unbothered when he dropped all his popcorn on the ground. His adorable unsolicited comments unabashedly expressing his joy is what suspending disbelief and watching for the fun is all about. In that sense, because of that little boy, Wonka was an utter success.

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