I did not know exactly what to think when I first heard the announcement of Willy’s Wonderland. What I did know, however, was that I would watch it.
An action-comedy horror film directed by Kevin Lewis from a screenplay written by G. O. Parsons, the film stars Nicholas Cage, alongside a cast that includes names like Emily Tosta, Ric Reitz, Chris Warner, and Beth Grant. Willy’s Wonderland was originally meant for a worldwide theatrical release in time for Halloween last year, but, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, had to settle for a release through video on demand, with a simultaneous limited theatrical run on February 12, 2021 (my twenty-fifth birthday!). Reportedly (as of this writing), a sequel is already in development.
Similar to The Banana Splits Movie that was released in 2019, I think anticipation for this film had a lot to do with comparisons to the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, a series that has really popularized animatronics in horror (not to say it was the first, or even the first with the restaurant concept – we were all creeped out by Chuck E Cheese, after all). However, for those that watched the trailers, I think you already know that this film is not attempting to “beat Blumhouse and Cawthon to the punch,” so to speak. It more or less flips the concept on its head and does something different with it altogether.
Nicholas Cage is a fun actor that has been a lot more fun as of late. Honestly, other than, for some reason, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse and The Croods, I don’t think I have reviewed a single film with Cage in it in the eight years I have written them. Crazy! This is not because I haven’t been watching him, however, and, in fact, I have been keeping close tabs on him. His career took a metaphorical plunge, so to speak, for a short while, where it seemed like he had a million films always gestating in some form of production, and it wasn’t that they were all bad, but a lot of came off like generic, paint-by-the-numbers films. I appreciate that he has been oddball, more unconventional features like Mandy and Color Out of Space, and I hope to talk about them more in-depth soon.
As I prefaced earlier, Willy’s Wonderland is a film that takes a familiar concept and turns it over on its head. Cage’s character is an unnamed drifter who winds up in Hayesville, Nevada when his vehicle breaks down after hitting a spike strip that’d been left in the middle of the road. He is assisted by a mechanic who fixes his vehicle for him. When he is unable to pay for it, the mechanic tells him he can pay off the debt by cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a rundown family entertainment center. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers intend to burn the dinery to the ground.
It is soon revealed that Willy’s Wonderland was formerly owned by a notorious serial killer who offed children left and right and, later, did some type of satanic ritual that saw his soul and others placed into the animatronics. Now, the animatronics are very much alive.
The film has the same basic idea as Five Nights at Freddy’s, with souls inhabiting the animatronics, and Cage’s character counting down the hours until the night ends, but, where the film diverts, is the unexpected addition of Cage’s character. As one of the characters so aptly puts it in the trailer, “He’s not in there with them, they are in there with HIM.” Nicholas Cage’s character does not flinch when an animatronic starts to move around and he does not yield when outnumbered – this is an action hero stationed in a family restaurant!
The film is knowingly ridiculous, and it walks the fine line between outright shlock and high-production. The choice of music and the skillful cinematography elevate it, making you forgive certain low-budget blunders. The animatronics are not exactly from Jim Henson’s workshop and mostly are not, at all, mechanical. Instead, they appear to be individuals in cloth / rubber outfits, a fact the film deploys little trickery to disguise for itself. The storyline itself is paper thin, as are most of its characters, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying its high-caliber absurdity.
Having the enigmatic Nicholas Cage as a silent protagonist was an interesting decision, but through his charismatic gonzo over-acting, his eccentricities manage to break through and then some. The fight scenes and gore are a novelty that is maintained and sustained for the duration of the film’s 88 minute runtime, knowing not to try and pad it out or add too much exposition.
Willy’s Wonderland is not a highbrow film or a film that’ll end up on anyone’s best of list, nor should anyone have expected as much. What it is, however, is a fun, bonkers film, about Nicholas Cage kicking animatronic ass, and little else other than that. It is a fun film I could see being treated as a cult horror classic in years to come and I would recommend it for that reason.