Why is there a Willy Wonka prequel?

Wonka’s road to a prequel explained, without the need of an Oompa Loompa song

Timothee Chalamet in Wonka
Wonka gives Roald Dahl’s famous fictional chocolatier the origin story treatment. (Warner Bros.)

The only thing rarer than finding a golden ticket in your chocolate bar is stumbling across a well-reviewed remake of an old classic — but judging by the critical praise Wonka is getting, it's the outlier.

Directed by Paddington’s Paul King and starring bright young thing Timothée Chalamet, Wonka gives Roald Dahl’s wild and wonderful chocolatier the origin story treatment, showing us how this top-hat-loving kid became the famed confectioner we all know and love.

Surrounding Chalamet is a starry ensemble cast boasting the likes of Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson and Keegan-Michael Key, with Hugh Grant stepping into the tiny pants of Wonka’s Oompa Loompa pals.

However, beneath all of these big names lies a sweet, caramel core packed with heart and and warmth — setting it up to be a big cinema hit during the 2023 festive season.

Read more: Everything we know about Wonka

This much we know. However, when the movie was first announced in 2021, the biggest talking point is whether it should be have 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.

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.

Timothée Chalamet with director Paul King on the set of Wonka
Timothée Chalamet with director Paul King on the set of Wonka. (Warner Bros.)

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.

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. Earlier this year, we were treated to a handful of short adaptations of Roald Dahl stories from filmmaker Wes Anderson, further showcasing the streamer's commitment to bringing the author's work to life.

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

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.

If indeed expiring rights motivated the production of 2023’s 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
Marvel heroes such are Spider-Man are among the most lucrative Hollywood IPs. (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.

Fortunately, this hasn’t been the case with Wonka, with the film already securing an 85% score on Rotten Tomatoes before audiences have even been able to sample it for themselves.

Elsewhere, Dahl’s work was 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 in cinemas on 8 December in the UK and 15 December in the US.