Wonka: Why is Warner Bros making a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel?

LYME REGIS, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 12: Timothée Chalamet is seen as Willy Wonka during filming for the Warner Bros and the Roald Dahl Story Company's upcoming movie 'Wonka' on October 12, 2021, in Lyme Regis, England. This film will focus on the young Willy Wonka on his earliest adventure and how he met the Oompa-Loompas. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
Timothée Chalamet is seen as Willy Wonka during filming for Wonka on October 12, 2021. (Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Warner Bros. is in the golden ticket business. Hot on the heels of their fresh take on Roald Dahl classic The Witches in 2020, the studio has given the formal green light to its long-gestating Willy Wonka project. Directed by Paddington helmer Paul King and entitled Wonka, the movie will explore the earlier years of the eccentric chocolatier, before he became Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp - depending on your preference.

As for its cast, only three actors have been confirmed with creditable roles. Fresh from Dune, Timothée Chalamet is set to don Willy Wonka's famous top hat and tails as a young version of the famous chocolatier, with Peep Show star Paterson Joseph playing rival chocolate maker Arthur Slugworth. Chalamet also let slip during 2023's CinemaCon in Las Vegas that Hugh Grant will be playing an Oompa-Loompa.

Meanwhile, it may be unclear who or what its remaining cast are playing but Wonka sure has a starry array of talent in its ranks. Sally Hawkins, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Colman, Rowan Atkinson and Matt Lucas are all set to appear, with additional unknown roles filled out by Jim Carter, Tom Davis, Rich Fulcher and Ellie White.

Read more: Everything we know about Wonka

Ask the internet, though, and the biggest talking point is whether this movie should be made at all. The 1971 adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Wilder, is now considered an all time family classic and the Depp-led remake in 2005 has largely been tossed aside since its release, despite positive early reviews and box office success.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the film 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory', 1971. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in the film 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory', 1971. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The answer may well be a case of rights. There’s certainly something of an arms race going on right now in terms of Dahl adaptations and other adjacent projects. Warner snapped up the rights to the Wonka intellectual property from the Roald Dahl Estate way back in 2016 and has been developing the project since then. It is common in the industry for these deals to be time-limited. It’s entirely likely that, in order to keep hold of the lucrative rights, Warner Bros. has to make a movie sooner rather than later.

Read more: Roald Dahl hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Meanwhile, Netflix has Taika Waititi helming two animated series based in the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the streamer notably avoided mentioning Wonka in their announcement. One series will focus on the Oompa-Loompas, while the other is “based on the world and characters” of the book, rather than being a direct adaptation.

Presumably, these series will feature Wonka in some way, but neither have chosen to foreground the fan favourite character at this early stage. The series are part of a huge deal Netflix has inked with Dahl’s estate, which will see it explore various corners of the late author’s oeuvre in the coming years. They already globally distributed the recent adaptation of the Matilda stage musical and have dozens of animated series planned as part of their deal. No other live-action projects have been announced.

The list of properties Netflix has secured rights to is hefty and includes many of Dahl’s most beloved works, from The Twits to The BFG and George’s Marvellous Medicine. Notable by its absence is The Witches, which is also a Warner Bros. property — as shown by 2020's critically-slammed outing for Anne Hathaway as the grotesque Grand High Witch. Also absent is James and the Giant Peach, perhaps as a result of the fact Disney is developing a live-action adaptation with director Sam Mendes attached, following up its 1996 animated effort.

Read more: Warner apologises to disability campaigners for The Witches

If indeed expiring rights are the motivation for the new Wonka project, this would be the latest manifestation of a common Hollywood practice. Time and time again, studios have made films in a time-sensitive way in order to maintain their grasp on potentially lucrative IPs. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies were widely reported as a consequence of the rights being liable to revert to Marvel — which was now inevitably going to make use of them as part of the MCU — rather than any degree of creative certainty. Given how much money Sony now makes by working with Marvel on Spidey, it’s difficult to disagree with their desire to hold on to those rights at all costs.

Tom Holland as Spider-Man (Sony Pictures)
Tom Holland as Spider-Man (Sony Pictures)

The same time-sensitive creative hurry was true of both the dirt-cheap 1994 Fantastic Four movie and Josh Trank’s reviled 2015 reboot. Perhaps the most egregious recent example is the 2011 horror sequel Hellraiser: Revelations. Rights owners Dimension Films had been trying to crack the nut of a remake of the original movie for quite some time but, on discovering they were set to lose the franchise rights imminently, they got a ninth movie in the series made within a matter of weeks. There are just four reviews for it listed on Rotten Tomatoes — and they’re all very negative indeed.

Read more: Movies delayed by legal battles

Fortunately for Dahl and Wonka fans, Warner Bros. has left itself a decent timescale to get this project done. The studio has set a release date of December 2023, giving director King and his team plenty of time to cast the right leading man and ensure that the script lives up to Dahl’s timeless character. Presumably the nonsensical back-story from the 2005 film — in which Wonka’s father was a candy-hating dentist played by Christopher Lee — will be consigned to the cutting room floor. As wrong as the project seems on paper, it could be something very special.

Meanwhile, Dahl's work was most recently adapted in the Sky Cinema drama To Olivia. Hugh Bonneville plays the author in the wake of the death of his daughter from encephalitis caused by measles, during the time in which he wrote many of his greatest works. The film was released in February 2021.

Wonka will be released on 15 December, 2023.