I hated Chuck E. Cheese growing up…
…My first job was actually working across from one. The animatronics creeped me out. It smelled like poopy diapers and the musk of stressed parents. And worst of all, the pizza stunk. How do you mess up pizza!? It seems director Kevin Lewis and writer G.O. Parsons may have felt the same, because their film Willy’s Wonderland feels like a channeling of rage towards that goddamn pizza mouse.
Continuing in the footsteps of what is becoming a growing pantheon of Chuck E. Cheese style horror with The Banana Splits Movie and the Five Nights at Freddy’s game franchise—also set to get a film adaptation--Willy’s Wonderland follows Nic Cage as an unnamed, cool guy drifter who ends up with a flat tire in a worn down, internet-less town disconnected from the rest of the world. Unable to pay in cash, he accepts a job at a decrepit kid’s joint named Willy’s Wonderland, where all he has to do is clean the place up, and his repair debts will be forgiven. Easy enough, until the animatronic Willy the Weasel and his freaky friends come to life to feast on Cage.
Unfortunately for them, Cage is not locked inside with the evil animatronics. They are locked inside with him, and yes, one character actually says this.
It is by law of the film gods that I inform that we have officially crossed over from films that star Nicolas Cage, into straight up Nic Cage porn. Cage has grown one hell of a fandom over the years, and has lately found himself in roles that play into his quirky style, especially in the horror genre, to the point where Cage has almost become his own genre. Willy’s Wonderland takes the next step in the Cage Rage by making it all about him.
Shortly after a couple is murdered inside Willy’s in goofy fashion, we’re introduced to Cage and multiple shots of his badass Camaro. Sunlight glints off of his don’t mess with me sunglasses. He’s a bit of an addict, trunk full of energy drinks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Cage crushes more energy drink cans in this film than an 80s frathouse bully. All of that’s pretty typical for Cage, except for one thing: his character does not speak. Cage’s character is as strong and silent as the strong and silent type can get. Instead, Cage is forced to use his intense features to get his emotions across, and he nails it. I swear, there is one moment where I could actually hear him thinking, “you made me bleed my own blood.” Willy’s Wonderland offers plenty of back and forth shots of Cage staring intensely at things of importance, whether it be rebellious teen Liv (Emily Tosta) or the Willy the Weasel Wonderland logo.
Willy’s Wonderland feels like the sort of film that calls you out for your Nic Cage obsession, and indulges in that completely.
Once Cage ignores the “kid killers” graffiti on the wall of Willy’s and other obvious warning signs, he finds himself locked inside the building…and gets right to cleaning. And this isn’t just cleaning. This is obsessive compulsive, sexualized cleaning. Lewis knows what his audience wants, and we’re treated to montages of Nic Cage passionately cleaning an arcade machine and other objects. Flares abound, highlighting Cage in shot after shot like the hero of a J.J. Abrams movie. For better or worse, Cage’s heroism is so wonderfully exaggerated, that when the first animatronic attacks, he hardly even flinches. No, he beats the ever-loving shit out of it!
Cage’s drifter is such a “badass”—or complete moron, I’m not sure—that once he learns of the threat against him, he continues to clean. And this is where the film begins to completely lose itself. What at first starts as a fun joke becomes exhaustive and repetitive. Anyone thinking Willy’s Wonderland sounds a little too much like Five Nights at Freddy’s may be onto something, because Willy’s Wonderland plays like a videogame itself. Cage cleans. Has himself what might as well be a “boss fight”. Cleans some more. His character—and the film—are so committed to this routine, that Cage even stops in the middle of fights to go take his scheduled breaks.
For a film under ninety minutes, Willy’s Wonderland begins to play itself out and feel much longer than it should, and the other characters don’t do much to help. Liv and her one-note teen friends eventually show up as little more than a body count of teens so dumb that they know the danger, and two of them still decide that Willy’s Fun Room is for more than one kind of fun. Beth Grant does a good job playing a character you love to hate in Sherriff Lund, but all of these characters are so plain, they might as well be animatronic robots themselves.
Lewis knows what this film is though, and a drama with well-rounded characters is not it. Willy’s Wonderland may be repetitive, but it’s also heavily stylized, with cinematographer David Newbert employing a campy, old school horror vibe with loads of dutch angles and colorful sets. Composer Emoi’s score sets the stage for a spooky romp that matches the chaotic energy of the film and the cartoonish portrayals of its characters.
Willy’s Wonderland never feels like a film you’re supposed to take seriously. Whoever designed the animatronics must hate children, because they’re the creepiest goddamn animatronics to ever sing for kids—and oh god, do they sing, a happy birthday song that attempts to be as frequently and obnoxiously used as the theme of Halloween III—but there is rarely an element of actual fear. Lewis does let the blood fly, but most of the gore moments aren’t very memorable, and the best all come from the destruction of the animatronics themselves.
A visit to Willy’s Wonderland is sort of like a visit to establishments like the title kid’s joint: Initially there’s a sense of fun, but by the time the cake rolls around, you’re tired of that birthday song, and how much fun you’re having depends on how many beers deep you are. Fans looking for some serious Cage porn with animatronic monsters and gore are going to get what they came for, just don’t expect to leave feeling like you can’t wait to go back to Willy’s Wonderland…at least not until you need that junk-food cinema equivalent of a Cage fix.
Willy's Wonderland is now on VOD from Screen Media.
By Matt Konopka
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