Hi all, and welcome to Debatables, a new semi-regular column where minor literary questions are argued with perhaps a bit too much passion.
My cohost and regular debate opponent is the wonderful Cricket Muse. A librarian at heart, Cricket teaches literature as a day job to reluctant teens. Publishing credits include Highlights (with an upcoming story about Mark Twain), a couple of stories in Boyd’s Mills Press anthologies, and an essay in Chicken Soup for the Multitasking Mother’s Soul, along with Boys’ Life, and The English Journal. Currently, she continues to polish her life’s work, Udder Nonsense, a fact-filled and fun book about cows.
If you don’t follow Cricket’s blog already, you really should. Because she’s awesome.
Here are the Debatables ground rules:
Each Debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will then be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).
Today’s Topic: Who was the better Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp?
I will be on Team Depp
and Cricket will argue on behalf of Wilder.
Yes, yes, I know. Gene Wilder’s interpretation of Willy Wonka is iconic. In fact, he singlehandedly props up 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film that frequently sags under the weight of too many songs and too many dreadful child actors. (Seriously, why must they yell every single line?)
So Wilder is wonderful. He’s charming and gregarious.
But “charming” and “gregarious” are not traits one usually finds in a monomaniacal recluse—and that, in a squirrel-removed nutshell, is the problem with his performance. A person like Wonka who is obsessed with only one thing to the point where he hides himself away for 15 years to work on that one thing, is a person who will lose his ability to interact normally with other people.
Depp’s interpretation understands this; he is the grown up version of that weird kid we all knew in high school who pursues obsessive hobbies in order to avoid the stress of forming interpersonal relationships.
The Wonka factory doubles as his personal oasis. When others invade his turf, he is unable to conceal his awkwardness: He flinches when he’s touched. His attempts at humor are cringeworthy. And he becomes defensive when any of his ideas are challenged. To this last point, when Mike Teavee—an obnoxious yet sometimes quite effective audience surrogate—asks a pointed question, Depp becomes so flustered he can only respond with a playground retort.
Depp’s Wonka is far more emotionally genuine than Wilder’s. We can see in Depp’s performance that Wonka would do most anything to avoid this Golden Ticket ordeal; to his mind, however, it is the only way to ensure that his beloved factory will live on after he dies. So Wonka does what’s necessary, uncomfortably flinching every step of the way.
Gene Wilder understood Willy Wonka. He understood the character so much that he stipulated he would only take the part if he could make his entrance with a limp and then fall with a somersault. You remember that opening, right? Genius. The reason for the pratfall entry? Simple. So from then on no one would know if Wonka could be trusted—is he telling the truth or is he lying? This is a man who trusted too much and it nearly ruined him. His former employees stole from him and in his defense he learns to be wary. Wilder got it.
With his startling blue eyes, cherub face, and frowzy hair, Wilder’s Wonka looks huggable, yet there is also a hint of being unbalanced, as in the trippy tunnel boat ride. Wilder played Wonka with an edgy subtlety. As for Depp? He went for weird.
His meet and greet scene involves flaming, melting puppets and he can’t be bothered with his guests. Depp’s Wonka plays a sociopath role due to daddy issues. There is an entire side trip about Wonka’s dysfunctional childhood. Since when did wearing braces create an obvious need for hug therapy?
As Wonka, Wilder delivers a noteworthy performance of a man who you want to like, yet aren’t quite sure about. Even when the children receive their just desserts, he projects how everything will turn out for the best. Depp? It’s as if he delights in the children’s demise.
Wilder’s Wonka is a bit grumpy, even prickly, but in the end he makes dreams come true. As for Depp? He ends up the movie getting a dental check up, and eating dinner, and he’s still weird.
Weird is not Wonka—Depp didn’t get it. Wilder is wonky, as Willy should be.
But did Wilder “get it” really? Roald Dahl hated Wilder’s portrayal. Dahl wasn’t alive to see Depp’s version, but his daughter was quoted that her father would’ve loved it.
Wilder’s Wonka is the sociopath here. That psychedelic boat ride’s sole purpose was to create nightmare fuel. Depp’s, on the other hand, was a childlike thrill ride.
Depp’s opening scene with the melting puppets isn’t as iconic as Wilder’s, but is true to his character’s pitiable social awkwardness. Yes, Depp’s Wonka doesn’t know how to make a dazzling entrance. But how would he? He’s been hiding in that factory for years!
And I think the domineering father subplot both explains Wonka’s behavior and gives him a satisfying character arc. It shows Wonka for who he is, a damaged soul—one who, with Charlie’s help, learns how to become a part of a family.
Never mind Dahl and his daughter. Few authors are happy with the film adaptation of their book. It’s the audience that matters, and generally people still praise Wilder’s Wonka. Why? Wilder had some strange moments, but there is a sense of celebration with Wilder’s Wonka.
Depp? He provides only a pasted smile, which matches his overall plasticity. Overall, Depp’s Wonka has no heart, no warmth, there is no sense of caring for Charlie.
With Wilder, we zoom off together with Charlie in the glass elevator to adventures. With Depp we watch him tell Grandma she smells like old people, and then we zoom out to a wide shot of them still living in their decrepit hovel. That’s an ending? Why would Charlie want to spend the rest of his life with a guy who insults his family? And where is the chocolate mansion? Still wild about Wilder.
And that, my friends, is the debate! Who do you agree with? What details did we fail to discuss?
Don’t be shy! Leave a comment! Let’s keep this discussion going!