This blog was originally intended to be a tribute to the great comic actor Gene Wilder, who passed away at the end of August. Obviously that would not be such a timely post now, and instead I will largely focus on something else. However, I will say a few things about this legendary figure, as one of Wilder’s most famous roles provides a useful starting point for my latest little tirade. For many people, especially those who first saw Wilder on screen as children, he will forever be synonymous with Willy Wonka. The film can be enjoyed superficially, but it is worthwhile to salute the subtle genius of Wilder’s portrayal, which on one level might be said to be all of a piece with the decency he projected as an actor. If you break down what he does physically, and analyse instantaneous moments, there is almost nothing especially zany or affected about anything he does with the role. There is no cynically overt attempt to chew the scenery and grab attention from the other actors. And yet the overall effect is mesmeric and disorienting.
What comes next you can perhaps guess. It is my uncontroversial opinion that Wilder’s Wonka was immeasurably superior to Johnny Depp’s take on the role in 2005, in a film that Wilder himself derided. The problem with the remake as a film is not so much Johnny Depp, who is a fine actor, though one needs also to qualify criticisms of Tim Burton, who has had many estimable achievements in his career. However, he was all wrong for adapting this Roald Dahl novel. The 1971 film combined charm and sincerity with a sly deviousness; the remake was a garish, leering, eye-rolling, misanthropic romp of singular unpleasantness, by comparison bereft of any dimension or substance. And it gave the lie to one of the artistic curses of this cynical age, namely the supposedly worthier claims of comedy that is darker or blacker. One of the pleasures, and simultaneous agonies, of watching certain movies from bygone ages, like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is the knowledge that we are too smug and knowing and self-regarding to make or watch such movies now. It gives these pictures a greater cultural, moral and humanistic value.
But Wilder’s objections to rehashing Willy Wonka go beyond the artistic, and here we come to the ultimate villains of the piece, Warner Bros. Jack Warner wasn’t reputed to be a very nice man, but he made movies. Lots of very good ones. However, his successors, like their peers in the other big studios, have largely lost their nerve to create. One could point to any number of articles, of which there are many, bemoaning the state of commercial cinema and its reliance on the blockbuster. Ire is also drawn to the flogging of the same old formulae, the packaging and repackaging of reliable staples such as comic book characters. As I am of a certain age, however, I am particularly appalled by any tampering with treasured cinematic artworks from my youth.
And so to the Four Horsemen of the Cinema Apocalypse: the sequel, the prequel, the remake, and the most dastardly of them all, the reboot. Can you tell the difference, for starters? And guess what, there are tons more of them in the works. Over 100 remakes and reboots are currently being planned, and if you are a fan of Akira, or A Prophet, or The Birds, or Das Boot, or Don’t Look Now, or Logan’s Run, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or Memento, or Murder on the Orient Express, or The Naked Gun, or Nosferatu, or Scarface, or The Seven Samurai, or Strangers on a Train, or Suspiria, or The Wild Bunch or some or all of the above, then I advise you to avoid the movie theatres for a couple of years. There is even, God forbid, a “rebooted Willy Wonka prequel movie” being planned, with Gene Wilder barely cold in his grave. Sure, there are a few great franchises, a few great continuations of epic stories, and a few great re-imaginings of films that left room for improvement or reinterpretation, and sure, remakes are as old as cinema itself, but for every Godfather Part II, for every The Departed, for every Casino Royale, there is a Himalayan range of putrefying stinkers.
However, the critical point here is to dissect the motivations. There will always be some commercial imperative, and let’s not be sniffy about that. But will there be any actual artistic motivation? Hollywood is getting better at sound and visual effects, and other things that one can group together under the heading of “craft”, but what about the storytelling, the creative impulse. Does it even exist when these projects are greenlighted? It’s a shame that we have less genuinely communal experiences these days of the kind cinema could once provide, but when considering the degraded status of the multiplex, one can appreciate the good reasons why sensible adults in the 21st century stay in at home with box sets.