Why Is WB Hiding that ‘Wonka’ Is a Musical?
Plus: A Christmas assignment!
Having sat through the trailers for Wonka repeatedly whilst waiting for other movies to begin, I can say with some measure of confidence that if you knew nothing about the movie aside from what you saw in the previews you would be a bit surprised when, in the opening seconds of the film, Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) climbed the mast of a ship and started singing his emaciated little heart out. Twelve silver somethings, that’s all he’s got, and he’s got to make them last or he’ll never make it in the big city, oops, down to six, now one, now none. All lost through the magic of song and the depredations of big-city living.
Yes, Wonka is a musical, much like its predecessors, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Which is to say that one shouldn’t be too surprised by all the singing and dancing—there is precedent, after all—but still. It seems like the Warner Bros. marketing department really didn’t want to let on that it was a musical, beyond your standard Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant) reveries.
As Matt Singer noted at ScreenCrush back in November, there are a handful of musicals hitting screens in the coming weeks and the studios are taking great pains to ensure that no one knows these big screen confections are, in fact, musicals. Wonka, sure, but also remakes of Mean Girls and The Color Purple, a sequel to Enchanted, and the Netflix animated original Leo. Matt asks a pretty straightforward question: “If studios don’t want to tell potential customers that a movie is a musical because they think audiences might not see it as a result… why are they making musicals in the first place?”
I’ve been wondering the same thing. I mean, at least part of it is fairly obvious: there hasn’t been a hit live-action musical that wasn’t based on a Disney animated film in some time. West Side Story and In the Heights both bombed spectacularly, though you could chalk those up to pandemic-era squeamishness (and the fact that West Side Story opened against Spider-Man: No Way Home). Nor did audiences show up for Dear Evan Hansen, the dreadful-sounding musical about a kid who pretends to be the best friend of another kid who committed suicide. Dicks: The Musical wasn’t hiding that it was a musical, but audiences were hiding from the theaters showing it: Even on the sliding scale of A24 box office grosses it did horribly, grossing just $1.4 million domestically.
Wonka will do better than that; indeed, it may even turn out to be a hit. At the very least, tracking data from The Quorum suggests audience interest is higher both in general and in terms of the percentage of audience members interested in seeing the film in a theater than The Marvels, and that movie opened to $46 million.
Look, Wonka’s not for me. There’s a reason I don’t review musicals, generally: I just can’t accept them on their level. I’m also kind of tone-deaf, in the literal sense. I simply couldn’t tell if Chalamet was singing well or poorly. It seemed fine. I guess? Everyone a step above William Hung sounds roughly the same to me. I can admire the artistry of something like West Side Story because Steven Spielberg is the greatest visual storyteller of our age, and I’ll admit to being deeply moved by the fantasia conclusion of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. But Wonka leans heavily on wonder and whimsy as told through song and dance and … well, that’s just not my cup of tea.
But someone somewhere thinks it’s some audience’s Earl Grey, otherwise why are they steeping it at great cost? And if those people want it … well, why hide it?
Make sure to pop on over to Across the Movie Aisle, where this Friday’s episode is about the great foreign film debate: subtitles or dubbing? And we consider our brave new AI world, in which computers match native lips to foreign dialogue readings.
Speaking of subtitles, I reviewed Godzilla Minus One this week. One thing I really appreciated about this flick: the absolute disdain for Imperial Japan’s wicked fight-to-the-last-man strategy that would have cost millions upon millions of lives, both military and civilian. It’s interesting that this and Oppenheimer came out in the same year.
On Across the Movie Aisle this week we reviewed The Boy and the Heron (we all saw it dubbed, interestingly) and talked about the absurdity of the Golden Globes.
I am fascinated by the trailer for Alex Garland’s Civil War in part because, at first glance, the politics of it make such little sense that it suggests the entire movie will be bat-guano nuts in either a “good, entertaining way” or a “bad, incoherent way.” Either way, I celebrate nearly everything in the man’s catalog, so I’ll be there.
RIP Andre Braugher. I remember seeing him in Glory on a CRT TV rolled into a history class to show us the VHS, and man. What a presence, even then, in his first screen role.
Rolling Stone wrote a bad list of “best action movies.” Ben Dreyfuss responded with a better one. Read Ben’s.
Assigned Viewing: Metropolitan (Criterion Channel, Max)
I am assigning Metropolitan because I have a very exciting Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast guest tomorrow. If you haven’t seen the film—and, really, what’s wrong with you that you haven’t?—watch it tonight before the episode drops tomorrow. You won’t be disappointed! It’s one of my favorite Christmas movies! If you’re in the Rochester area you can watch it with the director, Whit Stillman. He’ll be answering questions!