Willy's Wonderland (2021)

MARCH 1, 2021


Since it was announced, Willy's Wonderland seemed like a can't miss bit of B-movie nirvana: Nicolas Cage trapped in a Chuck E. Cheese type place where the animatronic mascots came to life and started murdering people. No, it probably wasn't going to be a masterpiece, but something you could knock a few drinks back and enjoy the silliness of the plot and also what would almost certainly be some choice bits of Cage screaming or delivering a few "Put the bunny back in the box" type howlers. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind the film came up with the concept and then set out with one goal in mind: to misappropriate the budget and make every wrong choice they possibly could in a mere 85 minutes.

The first bizarre choice is that the nameless hero doesn't speak. As a fan of Cage (legitimately, not ironically) I was dismayed to hear that he wouldn't utter a word in the entire film (for reasons never explained; a few grunts proves he is at least capable of some kind of vocalization), because it seemed to be denying him one of his strengths. To his credit, he actually gives a pretty good performance, and even offers a few gems for the people who love to meme him to death; his "Janitor" seems to have an affinity for pinball, and he stops a few times to go play an old machine, dancing and gyrating as he plays while guzzling an energy drink (a running gag in the movie is that he will stop everything he is doing - including fighting the monsters - when his watch alarm reminds him it's time for another break). It also never stops being funny when he stares down the animals, who look back at him in equal silence with their idiotic faces.

But if you're going to have a silent hero, why spend the money on Cage? They could have gotten someone cheaper with some cache in this VOD realm and spent a little more money on the set and creatures, or at least to come up with some variation on the action. Another curious decision is that the animals waste no time making their "alive" status known to Cage, and he kills one of them within minutes of being locked in the restaurant - only to nonchalantly go back to cleaning it (he is hired to do so in exchange for getting his car fixed, more on that soon). Without dialogue to mix it up a bit, this means that after 20 minutes they've kind of already exhausted their movie's tricks when it comes to the one-line premise of "Cage vs Chuck E Cheese". Some local kids who are trying to burn the joint down are thrown into the mix eventually, but when it comes to Cage's matchups, they're all the same: he silently tussles with one of them, eventually subduing it, and then rips out its gears to kill it while getting covered in blood. Then he puts on a fresh Willy's staff shirt and starts cleaning again. Rinse and repeat. It's funny the first time, sure, but when the climax of your movie could be swapped with the very first action scene and it wouldn't matter (as the angle is usually just on Cage's increasingly bloodied face/chest, the animal largely off-screen) there's a big problem.

It also curiously leaves the movie without much of a reason for him to even be there. The premise is that the animals (brought to life from some kind of satanic ritual) were offing people throughout the town until the sheriff, the guy who owned the building, and the mechanic all made a deal of sorts with Willy and the rest of his band: leave the townsfolk alone, and they'll bring strangers to them to satisfy their bloodlust. So the mechanic throws a dragstrip out on the road nearby to disable anyone that passes through, then tells the car's owner(s) that he can only accept cash but will call it even if they clean up Willy's. But the local kids who are tired of hearing the stories (and worrying about Willy perhaps not being satisfied with the random motorists) have decided to burn the place down, and then they get trapped there too. They provide Willy and pals with their kill quota, so not only is there no in-movie reason for Cage to be there anymore, but with him not speaking/not really caring about the situation, he's almost a non-entity within it. Without him, this would be a silly but entertaining time-killer, as opposed to a disappointment.

I mean, I'm sure he's not getting the same paydays he used to, but I guarantee he accounted for a hefty chunk of the film's budget, and I spent most of the time wondering what they could have spent that money on instead (ditto for however much they paid to use "Free Bird" near the end, another weird choice). Maybe they could have improved the set, as despite the fact that most of the movie takes place within the restaurant I never got any kind of good sense of its layout, and more than once the characters were in a room I for the life of me couldn't quite place as being a normal part of this kind of joint. And/or maybe they could have had a few more exterior scenes, which would not only draw less attention to the confused interior, but also mix it up a bit since the movie shows us pretty much everything it has to offer before the halfway point.

Or they could have improved the animatronics, of which there are also too many (eight! The actual Chuck E band only has four or five). The designs are pretty good and in line with the things they're spoofing, but they don't DO much. Their faces have some expression, but their body movements are just as limited as their normal robotic counterparts, which is perhaps part of the joke but never comes off as particularly funny. Worse, it reduces how threatening they can be while also leaving you, the viewer, wondering how it is they've managed to do this for so long and even start to wipe out the town at one point. Once again, this thing that has been happening for years is finally stopped because someone knocked them over and punched them a few times? No one ever tried that? Or did it just need someone as badass as Nic Cage to do it, an idea that would work if he was doing anything more interesting than... knocking them over and punching them a few times. If it's supposed to be part of the joke, why isn't it funnier?

As for the teens, they're, you know, whatever. Each are given one trait and you can probably guess the order in which they'll be killed. And apart from the lead one (Emily Tosta) they rarely interact with Cage, so most of their scenes just feel like the result of someone realizing that their jokey premise could barely sustain a short film, let alone a feature, and added them in at the last minute. It also sadly wastes Beth Grant as the town sheriff (and Tosta's adoptive mother), who allows all this to happen even though it seems pretty easy to stop it since (spoiler) the climax makes no suggestion that Cage's actions had no effect and some supernatural force would keep them coming back again and again. So why did she do it? She even stops Tosta from blowing the place up early on, suggesting a "it's not that simple" type reveal later that never comes.

And the kicker? I could have forgiven so much of this if not for the presence of one of its producers: Grant Cramer. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he played Mike Tobacco in Killer Klowns From Outer Space, a film with a similarly silly concept that works infinitely better. That film found a way to balance the campy ideas with some genuine menace, and after seeing his name among the 45 other producers (including Cage himself) at the top of the film I couldn't help but feel disappointed that they had a bonafide veteran of this sort of thing right there and still kept fumbling. Again, I wasn't expecting a great movie, but I also wasn't expecting them to coast on the elevator pitch and nothing else. Even with a concept as silly as this, you gotta try, and I just wasn't seeing that effort.

What say you?


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