When the announcement that Timothée Chalamet was going to star in a new Willy Wonka origin story popped up on my Snapchat, I felt my stomach shrivel with dread. Not because I dislike Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Timothée Chalamet, but because I’m really starting to resent this new generation of classic-movies-remade.
Of course, there have always been remakes of films. Classic texts like Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby, or Romeo and Juliet have been remade quite a few times, with their latest reincarnations being relatively successful. But there have been equally unsuccessful attempts at remakes in recent years – and these attempts are the ones becoming more frequent. The remakes are designed to be a compromise between the new and the known – viewers want something with the nostalgia and comfort of childhood favourites, but with enough novelty to keep them engaged. It’s a tricky balance to land, and fewer movies are managing to do it. After the same sideways approach being applied to classic movies over and over again, the results begin to feel less like clever subversions of their originals and more like the product of a formula. As a result, the remakes are becoming less and less popular with audiences, no matter how much money their companies pour into them. Remakes like Mulan, Cinderella, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast are lavish and well-styled, with a cast of household names starring in them. Yet none of them have achieved the commercial success or emotional hold of the classic films they’re based on, or of Disney’s modern original films like Frozen. After all, why would you see a remake of a childhood favourite that lacks the soul, the memories, and the music that you loved so much… when you could just see the original film?
Another sub-genre of the remake is the ‘villain origin story’, the likes of which Cruella, Maleficent, and the Star Wars prequels are included. There’s no doubt that we, as viewers, adore a good villain – but we probably adore their tragic, sympathetic backstories less. And while it has been done well – think Joker – the villain-backstory has a limited life expectancy. The villain has been wronged, slighted, or disenfranchised in some way, and the hero of the original story has simply been caught up in the villain’s (justifiable) revenge plot. Repeat it enough, and it stops being an intriguing re-telling and becomes predictable.
And beyond that, we should be allowed to enjoy booing a good villain without the baggage of feeling sorry for them. Some villains you simply love to hate – they’re big characters with great one-liners, and we enjoy laughing at them and rooting against them. I can understand the desire to know more about classic, brilliant villains like Cruella and Maleficent. Yet I can’t help but feel that their villainous fabulousness has been a little crushed under the weight of a sympathetic backstory. The mystery, glamour, and evil that can surround a good villain is what makes them interesting to us. But their own movies, which give them a more humane, mundane side, can risk stripping away the shiny varnish of their villainous mystique. It’s why I pray that Disney doesn’t come out with a prequel for Scar or Hades (two of my favourite villains) in the name of a cash cow.
It’s a shame, really – instead of putting money into original films that can explore new concepts and characters, the film industry is putting a large emphasis on the retelling of old stories. So I won’t have my hopes up for the Wonka prequel – however much money they throw at it.
[Ailsa Morgan – she/they – @a.ilsa_m]
[Image credits: Jeff Sneider]