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What’s with all the Willy Wonka wonderment?

ByRichard Brann

Sep 26, 2020

The sudden popularity of the 2005 adaptation shows growing awareness of the film’s unsettling undertones.

There have been two adaptations of Roald Dahl’s classic story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One, all the way back in 1971, features the late Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. The other – released in 2005 – stars the eccentric (and more than a bit creepy) Johnny Depp as the chocolate-maker with a death trap factory.

Both have recently been released on Netflix – but only the 2005 adaptation has seen immediate and sudden popularity, with a growing TikTok trend parodying the music, style and costumes of the film. At the time of writing, the film is the eighth most popular film on Netflix UK and the apparent founder of the TikTok movement (@willywonkatiktok, unsurprisingly) has grown to over thirteen million followers in the past few months.

The TikTok Trend

It’s easy to take the piss out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its peculiar protagonists, ritualistic dancing and songs celebrating the deformation of children, and overly imaginative, high budget set design and aesthetic. This is, of course, exactly what’s being parodied on TikTok. The previously mentioned star of the trend takes Willy Wonka’s kookiness and strange inappropriateness to a new level: dancing, grinding and twerking topless with parts of Johnny Depp’s costume on, while referring to followers as Oompa-Loompas or children. His videos regularly amass millions of views and his followers make videos reacting to him, increasing his views and the frenzy around him. Other accounts similarly parody the aesthetic of the film and display their inability to now take anything Willy Wonka-related seriously. 

Nostalgia Meets Awareness

Why did the internet spawn – of all things – massively popular videos of someone twerking while dressed up as Willy Wonka? The immediate thing to notice is the age bracket. Sixty percent of TikTok users are between 16 and 24, and the film adaptation being parodied came out fifteen years ago in 2005. This points to a generation who have seen the film as young children, without any awareness of its undertones. Yet fifteen years down the line, it would seem that people are looking back at the film’s style and performances and realising that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has some kooky implications.

Johnny Depp’s performance (easily the thing subject to the greatest parody) is definitely…standout. Looking back on the film, he plays the role with the scary enthusiasm of a cult leader, the mannerisms and speech pattern of a robot trying to be human, and of course, an unsettling sense of arrested development. The grandiose sets and costumes, brought to life by Tim Burton’s vivid imagination, create a distinctly psychedelic vibe that feels jarring (and easily recognisable on TikTok). 

In a sense, it’s almost beneficial for the 1971 adaptation that it hasn’t seen so much popularity as the 2005 film. The character of Willy Wonka strays far from not just the archetypal adult of a kids’ film, but also from any sense of reality overall. As Johnny Depp – and @willywonkatiktok – shows us, depicting an eccentric adult who embraces the fantasy and imagination of childhood can go catastrophically wrong, and be easily interpreted as something far more inappropriate – even unintentionally. When the film arrived on Netflix millions of Generation Z kids stuck in lockdown went to a childhood classic and found it easier to parody rather than look back with restraint.

Image: (a)artwork via Flickr