Willy's Wonderland (2021)
"Their idea of fun is killer!"
When his car is damaged by a stinger trap, a drifter is tricked into a janitorial job at the now condemned Willy's Wonderland, a defunct restaurant and amusement arcade, so that he can pay for the repairs. However, the routine task suddenly becomes an all-out battle for survival as he is forced to fight against waves of demonic animatronics. Meanwhile, a bunch of local teenagers wanting to burn the place down to the ground and put an end to the carnage find themselves trapped inside.
Fresh in the footsteps of 2020’s The Banana Splits Movie comes Willy’s Wonderland, another unofficial attempt to bring to life the successful Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series to life on the big screen. Warner Bros. secured the rights to Five Nights at Freddy’s way back in 2015 but the film underwent development hell for years, switching between directors, screenplays and even production companies and after Blumhouse took on the property, the film is finally being released in 2023. But that didn’t stop other people from trying to make Five Nights at Freddy’s in everything but name only. Within the space of a couple of years we’ve had a couple of similarly themed horrors with characters trying to survive in some wacky building being terrorised by animatronic mascots. Willy’s Wonderland was the highest profile of the two thanks to its inspired/shameless casting of Nicolas Cage in a leading role. Decide for yourself which is the appropriate word to use.
With the right ingredients for a cult hit, it’s frustrating to see how painstakingly dull and boring Willy’s Wonderland is. The was marketed and sold simply as Nicolas Cage fights off killer animatronic monsters and that’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell, if you can even call it a plot. The repetitive formula quickly outstays its short-lived welcome – Cage walks around, encounters one of the animatronic monsters, has a battle with it, destroys it and then moves on to the next battle, stopping occasionally for a game of pinball and a drink. Don’t expect any level of depth, any real story and any real purpose. Willy’s Wonderland seems to exist purely as a source of memes, with the people behind the film trying too hard to make it become self-aware of its own ludicrousness. Attempts at humour, like Cage walking away from rescuing a girl because it’s time for his break, don’t help the tone of the film either. Intercutting him playing pinball whilst she’s fighting for her life wouldn’t have even sounded great on paper so you can imagine how stupid it appears on film. Just when you think things can’t get any crazier or nonsensical, the script comes out with something even more wacky for you to deal with. You’ll do a lot of shoulder shrugging and sighing here, wondering just what was going through the minds of the writers.
Cage gets top billing as ‘The Janitor’, straight out of Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Man With No Name’ playbook – a mysterious drifter with no identity or character who turns up when the situation needs him and has moral ambiguity towards the other characters. He’s neither friend, nor foe, he’s just there, and this makes it almost impossible for the audience to side with him. It’s no secret that he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue at all. It’s a unique decision to say the least and serves absolutely no purpose in the film but this is Nicolas Cage after all and so his overacting and madcap energy is meant to do the talking for him. Cage’s physical performance is top notch, however, tearing apart his robotic foes with aplomb with whatever he can lay his hands on, and you’re either going to think it’s really annoying or a casting masterstroke depending on your tolerance levels of the man. This is Cage’s film and whilst there are a few supporting characters around, they’re there to provide fodder for the animatronics and thus, stereotypical traits aside, they’ll barely register on your radar.
With names such as Willy, Siren Sara, Cammy the Chameleon, Tito the Turtle, Arty the Alligator, Knighty Knight, Gus the Gorilla, and Ozzie the Ostrich, you know what to expect from the design of the animatronic creatures. They are a mixed bag - those that look like animatronics are excellent with stilted movements and expressionless eyes. However, too many of them just look like stunt men in fancy dress costumes which takes you out of the film a little bit. There's nothing to differentiate themselves from each other, outside of the titular character being a little smarter and more cunning than the others. At least the costumes look a bit moth-ridden and flea-bitten as if they've been left to decay for a long time.
With the repetitive nature of the screenplay, expect to see the same results with each of the action set pieces – Cage, seemingly dispatching his opponents with ease and a bored look on his face, covered from head to toe in oil, usually holding a severed limb or head from his opponent. There’s a massive lack of imagination with the way the animatronics get dispatched and aside from the fight with the gorilla inside a toilet, the rest of the kills are pretty weak. While the deaths are gory (be it blood from the humans or oil from the animatronics), the frenetic cutting and editing as well as some awful camerawork really takes away most of their impact. Obvious CGI spray spoils what should have been the centrepiece of Willy’s Wonderland. The post-production team throw in some lens flare and fancy editing to keep everything looking pretty but there’s no real depth behind the gloss.
Though it starts out quirky enough with its unique selling point of killer animatronic monsters and bizarre performance from Cage, Willy’s Wonderland quickly reveals that it has nothing else to offer. The attempts to drag it out for nearly ninety-minutes are excruciating at times, smugly amusing at others. It’s another of Cage’s curios for his rabid fanbase but outside of that, you won’t be staying long at Willy’s Wonderland.
Director(s): Kevin Lewis
Writer(s): G.O. Parsons
Actor(s): Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Caylee Cowan, Jonathan Mercedes
Duration: 88 mins