‘Willy’s Wonderland’ Review: Cage Against the Machine
By Daniel Rester
Nicolas Cage has gone through many creative phases as an actor. He’s done serious Oscar movies, action-heavy blockbusters, family films, and even straight-to-DVD crime flicks. Recently he’s been dipping his toe in horror, and I’m totally here for it. Following Mandy (2018) and Color Out of Space (2020), he now has Willy’s Wonderland. While those other two were more artsy horror films, Willy’s Wonderland is a bizarre and comedic ride that finds Cage battling animatronic restaurant characters.
You read that right. Think the Chuck E. Cheese dolls, but anthropomorphic and sinister. There’s also obvious comparisons to be made to the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s (2014), which finds a night security guard watching such dolls move around on his camera monitors.
Cage isn’t a security guard in Willy’s Wonderland though. He’s a silent drifter type with sunglasses and a kickass car. After his ride has tire issues in a small town without ATMs though he must work to pay off the auto fix. This involves him becoming a one-night janitor at Willy’s Wonderland, a run-down restaurant that the owner wants to bring back to glory days. Once the no-character-name Cage is cleaning up, however, he comes to realize that the restaurant’s mascots are possessed and deadly.
Willy’s Wonderland never quite uses its odd but intriguing premise to maximum effect, but it is still an entertaining enough time watching Cage beat the shit out of creepy animatronics. He is clearly having fun, though it is an unusual choice to hire Cage to be in his rage mode and not have him speak one single line of dialogue. That’s correct. Aside from some grunting and screaming, Cage’s character remains silent throughout. The pinball machine the character plays on and the sodas he often cracks open make more noise than he does. Even so, Cage is very watchable with his stares and physicality, and it’s a joy to see him wildly dance in one scene.
The animatronic characters themselves are also cool. They are mostly done practically, though some CGI comes to play at times. There’s the main one, Willy, but there’s also such colorful ones as Tito Turtle and Knighty Knight. The most alarming of the bunch is Siren Sara, who looks like a methed-out giant fairy. These characters also like to sing birthday songs that give off those cute but simultaneously uncomfortable vibes.
How are these animatronics alive? Well, the film does come up with a reason that’s a mixed bag, but I won’t spoil it. I will say that the screenwriting by G.O. Parsons for the backstory is given too much attention while all of the supporting human characters aren’t given enough attention. Most of them are teens who want to burn down the restaurant but end up trapped inside with Cage. While he takes down Willy’s soldiers with ease, the teens are basically just there to be slasher victims.
The only one mildly interesting other than Cage’s character is Liv (Emily Tosta), who has a personal history with the restaurant involving her parents being killed. Tosta does a fine enough job playing the sympathetic role. The movie would have benefited from focusing on her and Cage more and cutting down the amount of friend victims.
Director Kevin Lewis does an okay job at giving Willy’s Wonderland a weird personality. He certainly likes showing off Cage’s coolness and adding colorful lighting, strobe effects, and lens flares to scenes. He does find some angles to make the animatronics creepy, but he puts in little effort to build up suspense before they attack; the closest he gets with real suspense is during a sex scene where an animatronic alligator is watching from a corner.
Lewis does an uneven job with the action scenes. They often have smooth setups, but the fighting execution is captured with chaotic close-ups and rapid editing. While Cage is giving it his all, he isn’t backed up by the best or most creative staging. Many of the kills just involve chair legs. There’s no energetic kill variety like someone like Sam Raimi would bring to the table. Seeing Cage curbstomp an animatronic gorilla on a urinal is pretty neat though.
Willy’s Wonderland never meets its full potential, but it is strangely entertaining at times and Cage is consistently watchable. The animatronics also make for fresh horror antagonists on the movie screen. Lewis’ film has enough offbeat ingredients to potentially make it become a cult classic. I just wish it had gone a little more nuts than it does.
My Grade: 6.3/10 (letter grade equivalent: B-)
Running Time: 1h 28min