Movie Musings: Thoughts on Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka
It seems there are some things that will never die, largely thanks to the internet.
One controversy that started in 2004 and has never truly abated, came about with the first previews and information regarding Tim Burton’s film adaptation, of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
(Note: I mention the above as a footnote to much of the internet, that claims that Burton was remaking the 1971 film. I once again remind any who think this, that the 1971 film is not the be-all/end-all starting point for this story).
While many were more used to their Willy Wonka being a small, squiggly-bearded man with a cane, or a tall, wild-haired eccentric who seemed to waffle on just what he meant, many were shocked at the first images of Johnny Depp as the fabled chocolatier.
Clad in red and black, this Wonka sported a pale complexion, a ‘Prince Valiant’ haircut, and a slightly high voice.
No sooner had the images been made available, then many quickly started spouting vitriol at Burton’s “bastardization”of the character.
The biggest claim? That this Wonka, a pale-faced weirdo, inviting a group of children to his factory, was 2 degrees shy of being a film version, of popstar Michael Jackson.
I read that almost everywhere when the film was released, and even a decade later, many largely claim the film is ‘terrible’ for remaking the 1971 film, little realizing the true intent of what Tim Burton and Johnny Depp set out to do.
In looking around online, I was surprised that noone had looked into Depp’s take on the character, and tried to decipher just what was being conveyed in his quirks and vocals.
So, like many of my little diatribes, I felt I would shed a little light on a character most seemed to write off as a child-obsessed, pale weirdo.
First, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: Depp’s pale appearance. It was this light pigmentation that caused many to point and proclaim “Depp is playing Michael Jackson.” However, it should be noted that Wonka was not always this pale.
In several brief scenes in the beginning, as well as a small flashback, we’re shown that Willy Wonka was not always as pale as he appeared on promotional images.
His early days running a small chocolate shop, and up through his going to the fabled Loompaland, show his complexion seeming to be pretty regular.
If one looks at this evidence, they can surmise that the pale complexion largely came about, after he closed off his factory when spies were found in his workforce.
It’s never stated exactly when Wonka went to Loompaland, but one has to figure that maybe once he stopped production, the candymaking itch got to him, and that eventually led him to his current workers.
With little need for contact, and having the aboriginal Oompas to work and do things for him, Wonka was able to pretty much continue to work sight-unseen, doing what he loved best. This also kept him out of the sun, accounting for the paleness of his skintone, when we see him on the tour.
Tying into Wonka’s complexion, is also the way in which he talks to, and addresses people.
Early on when we seen him in the film, he only says a few sentences, but upon meeting the winners and their parents, his speech patterns get a little odd.
It is left rather vague as to when Willy cut himself off from human interaction, but it feels like the script gives us little clues, from the following lines of dialogue:
“Good morning, starshine! The earth, says, hello!”
“It’s in the fridge, daddy-o! Are you hip to the jive, can you dig what I’m layin’ down, I knew that you could, slide me some skin, soul brother!”
“Well, let’s keep on truckin!”
Most of these phrases sound like gibberish to most young people, but much of what Willy is saying, comes from phrases from the late 60’s/early 70’s.
My feelings were that it was sometime around the mid-70’s, when Wonka finally shut down his factory to the outside world. Most likely, he had not been seen for some 30 years, if we take the 2005 year of the film’s release to be the modern day (of course, this is also speculative, since the film never really gives us a clear year/date of when it takes place).
One feature some will be quick to notice about Wonka, is that he often has little cards that he reads from at certain areas of the tour. Also, most of what he mentions regarding parts of his factory, is very to-the-point.
In several interviews, Burton and Depp claimed they found inspiration for their Wonka, in thinking back on old TV shows, and their live-action hosts.
Most people in this day and age don’t recall, but long ago, there would often be children’s shows run by local networks all across the country. These adult hosts would maybe have puppets to interact with, run cartoons, or even have a live studio audience to interact with.
Oftentimes, when one looked back on those hosts, they often seemed really crazy and a little off-kilter, and that seemed to be what Depp was trying to put into his performance.
One can definitely see a few traces of the informative children’s show host, in how Wonka would often try to intersperse little bits of knowledge and information here and there.
As to the cards he carries around, my theory is that not really having had to worry about showing people around his factory, Wonka had a number of cards prepared for certain occasions, to help him interact with his guests.
Though even at times around his guests, he almost isn’t sure just how to react.
When some of his words are contradicted, Wonka is seen to “lash out” in a rather immature way.
When Veruca Salt points out he is repeating something he already said, he grows quiet for a few moments, before making fun of how short the children are.
When Mike TeeVee tries to find fault with his reasoning, Wonka just mentions how he can’t understand Mike because of his “mumbling.”
If one considers it, this could be a side-effect of not really having persons to converse with for several decades. When one has the full-run of their own empire without anyone contradicting their ideas, it can definitely push one to get a bit egotistical.
“You’re really weird!”
In one interview, Burton did compare Wonka’s isolationist attitude, to the likes of Howard Hughes, and Charles Foster Kane, the antagonist of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane film.
Hughes was known for having germaphobic tendencies, and would often be exacting about certain processes, and making contact with others.
Wonka from the start, is seen largely covered up, with only his face and neck exposed. His hands are clad in purple latex gloves, and several times when it comes to human contact, he doesn’t seem at all willing to return the favor.
Citizen Kane’s influence can be seen in the way that Wonka isolated himself within his candy palace, not that different than what Kane did with his unfinished estate, known as Xanadu.
One of the strangest moments for some viewers, was Wonka being unable to say the word “parents,” stumbling through its pronunciation as if he is tongue-tied.
Unlike the original book or 1971 film, the 2005 film included a small backstory regarding Wonka.
Most film adaptations in this day and age, tend to embellish some children’s stories, with added backstory.
In Ron Howard’s The Grinch, a backstory is given as to just how the Grinch ended up as he did (throwing the book’s line noone quite knows the reason for a loop).
In the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, more information is given regarding Max’s family/home-life, and what leads him to sail to the land of the Wild Things.
In the case of this film, the backstory of Willy’s father Wilbur Wonka being a dentist who shunned candy, seemed a good foil for a man who could cause Willy to shun the notion of family.
At the end of the film, Willy offers Charlie the chance to run his factory, but (unlike the book or the 1971 film), Wonka’s offer comes with the caveat, that Charlie has to leave his family behind.
“A chocolatier has to run free, and solo,” says Willy. “He has to follow his dreams, gosh-darn the consequences. Look at me: I had no family, and I’m a giant success!”
Of course, Charlie’s family unit was much different from Wonka’s. Though the Buckets have nothing, they still stick together through thick-and-thin. Even with the promise to inherit one of the most famous factories in the world, Charlie’s morals and ethics allow him to rescind Wonka’s offer.
Here, the best laid plans of Oompas and Men, goes awry. Wonka’s thinking that finding an heir would be simple, is cut down, and he grows quiet, calling what has happened, “unexpected, and …weird.”
He leaves in a quiet mood, and afterwards, hits a block in his usual candymaking.
Apparently, Charlie’s refusal has driven a wedge into his thought-process, and in a weird scene (to most audiences), he goes out as an average person getting a shoe-shine, to talk to Charlie.
It may seem odd that someone like Wonka would address Charlie, but maybe it’s the thought process that because Charlie somehow caused these emotions to surface…maybe he can solve the problem.
Of course, Charlie’s solution to when he feels terrible, is to go to his family, which is given an eye-rolling sigh by Wonka, causing Charlie to get a little upset.
“What do you have against my family?” he asks, most likely thinking of the stipulation, and the sigh meaning Willy is singling out the Buckets.
Willy then claims that it isn’t about the Buckets, but the whole idea of parents, claiming that they hinder creativity, by telling you what to do, and what not to do.
Being an obedient child with decent parents, Charlie’s point-of-view is that parents mainly do those things because they care about their children. When Wonka doesn’t seem to believe this, Charlie suggests he should talk to his Father about it.
Wonka at first claims he doesn’t want to, but when Charlie offers to go with him for support, he sparks to the idea.
The two then take the Great Glass Elevator to Wilbur’s home. One has to wonder just how/where Wonka knew where his Father was. My guess in his off-time, he had someone seek out the information, but never acted on it (but then again, we never know where Loompaland is, so this could be another bit of Dahl-ish storytelling, left to our imagination).
Charlie also is able to get Willy into the house, claiming he is bringing him for a dentist appointment.
Though once inside, we also see that Wilbur has been following his son’s career, though maybe also out of a sense of pride, he never reached out.
Some would probably claim it seems ridiculous that Wilbur wouldn’t recognize his own son, but I feel it works.
The last time the two were face-to-face was when Willy was a little boy. Plus, of the few pictures that are seen in some of the news articles, most of Willy’s face is covered up.
Of course, the one thing Wilbur knows is teeth, and this is how he realizes the strange man in his chair, is his son.
Though both are men of few words when it cones to emotions, they quietly reconcile.
Willy Wonka then offers the factory to Charlie a second time, and rescinds his “no family” clause. This time, Charlie accepts.
The final scene we see of the family allowing Willy in for dinner, shows a little growth in pushing the character forward.
Wonka decides to stay for dinner, and talks to a few members of the household. The Buckets have usually been a very positive family, and it feels like here, they have accepted Willy as an additional member of the Bucket family.
Unlike many who grew up watching live-action musicals in their childhood, my family was not as attuned to them. So while most people I know have fond memories of growing up with films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, or The Sound of Music, I just don’t have the same connection.
My early childhood was moreso encompassing regarding animated films by Disney, with only a select few live action films introduced at an early age, like Star Wars, and The Neverending Story.
While many who grew up with the 1971 film just claimed the 2005 was remaking that film, I knew enough from the start of production, that Tim Burton and writer John August, were going back to the source material of Roald Dahl’s book.
In the last 10 years, I hear a lot of people just throw words around like “horrible,” “insulting,” and “terrible” when it comes to this film. It seems every other post on IMDB.com includes one of those words for every other new post that is made.
Maybe if one is measuring the 2005 film against the 1971 film as their Holy Bible, I could see that line of thought, but I feel if people call Burton’s film terrible, they clearly have never seen terrible films like Monster-a-Go-G0, or The Beast of Yucca Flats.
However, I’m of the opinion that the 2005 film is probably one of Burton’s most entertaining films in the last decade.
Yes, Depp’s take isn’t at all like what Wilder’s was, but Burton’s take on adapted material, can often steer a character down different paths.
Another example of this, is 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, in which the character of Ichabod Crane was changed from a school teacher, to that of a forensics scientist trying to factually explain several murders in the town, using science, to combat local superstition.
Of course, this post will probably change nothing regarding how people see Depp’s portrayal of Wonka.
But even so, I’ve always found the internet to be a place where people could find information on almost everything. And oftentimes, when I don’t find said information, and if I feel I have something to say that noone else has, it usually ends up in these posts.
Well, let’s keep on truckin’!