A silent and swaggering Nicolas Cage battles demonic animatronic mascots in this horror flick, which is never as entertaining or out-there as it should be.
April 08, 2021
If you've ever wondered how Nicolas Cage might've fared during cinema's silent era, Willy's Wonderland has the answer. A horror film about killer animatronic restaurant mascots, it's firmly a 2021 feature. It wasn't made a century ago, before synchronised sound forever changed the movie business, so it's definitely a talkie as well. Cage doesn't do any chattering, however. He groans and growls, and often, but doesn't utter a single word. The actor's many devotees already know that he's a talent with presence; whether he's cavorting in the streets under the delusion that he's a bloodsucker in Vampire's Kiss, grinning with his locks flowing in the wind in Con Air, dousing himself with vodka and grunting in Mandy or staring at a vibrant light in Color Out of Space, he repeatedly makes an imprint without dialogue. So, the inimitable star needn't speak to command attention — which is exactly the notion that Willy's Wonderland filmmaker Kevin Lewis (The Third Nail) put to the test.
First, the great and obvious news: Cage doesn't seem to put in much effort, but he's a joy to watch. Playing a man simply known as The Janitor, he glowers like he couldn't care less that furry robots are trying to kill him. He swaggers around while cleaning the titular long-abandoned Chuck E Cheese-esque establishment, dances while hitting the pinball machine on his breaks, swigs soft drink as if it's the only beverage in the world and proves mighty handy with a mop handle when it comes to dispensing with his supernaturally demonic foes. Somehow, though, he's never as OTT as he could be. Cage plays a character who doesn't deem it necessary to convey his emotions, and that results in more restraint on his part than the film demonstrates with its undeniably silly premise. Accordingly, cue the bad news: as entertaining as Cage's wordless performance is — even without completely going for broke as only he can — Willy's Wonderland is often a ridiculous yet routine slog.
The Janitor finds himself locked in Willy's Wonderland in the sleepy Nevada town of Hayesville courtesy of an inconveniently placed spike strip. Driving over the device trashes his tyres, which local mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner, Machete) can replace, but The Janitor doesn't have cash, credit isn't accepted and there's no working ATM within a handy distance. So, he's offered a deal. If he spends the night cleaning the shuttered children's eatery for owner Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz, Finding Steve McQueen), Jed will fix his car. The Janitor agrees and gets a-scrubbing, but animatronics Willy Weasel, Arty Alligator, Cammy Chameleon, Tito Turtle, Knighty Knight, Gus Gorilla, Siren Sara and Ozzie Ostrich (no, not Ossie Ostrich from Hey Hey It's Saturday) have him in their sights.
Willy's Wonderland could've opted for a stripped-back, action-heavy approach, solely focusing on Cage's clash with the critters after the movie's obligatory setup scenes. The film clearly only exists because he's in it, after all. And, the idea of seeing Cage in a John Wick-style flick that's built upon relentless fights for survival is a concept made in cinematic heaven — if Charlize Theron (in Atomic Blonde) and Bob Odenkirk (in Nobody) can do it, he can as well. But first-time screenwriter GO Parsons opts for a different template. The horror genre's fondness for offing meddling teens comes into play, and Willy's Wonderland is a worse movie for it. Hayesville high schoolers Liv (Emily Tosta, Party of Five), Chris (Kai Kadlec, Dropouts), Kathy (Caylee Cowan, Incision), Aaron (Christian Delgrosso, School Spirits), Bob (Terayle Hill, Judas and the Black Messiah) and Dan (Jonathan Mercedes, Cobra Kai) know that something isn't right at Willy's. They're aware that folks have gone missing there before, too. And, after the rest of the group helps Liv escape the handcuffs her guardian and local sheriff Eloise Lund (Beth Grant, Words on Bathroom Walls) uses to try to keep her safe, they all head to the condemned building to stop The Janitor from becoming its next victim.
When it wallows in by-the-numbers slasher territory, just with homicidal puppets and not maniacal humans picking off pesky teens, Willy's Wonderland delivers the least-engaging version of its premise. That's when it resembles the video game Five Nights at Freddy's mixed with terrible sequels to 80s fare like Friday the 13th, and blandly so. Lewis and Parsons might intend to wink and nod at the decades-old pictures that started their chosen subgenre, rather than lazily ape them — as the retro animatronic designs appear to indicate — but when their film happily embraces every cliche it can, it's neither fun or funny. The flick's disposable adolescents make the usual range of stupid choices, including having sex in the doomed space, and whenever they open their mouths, they rarely do the movie any favours. Indeed, the dialogue is so thin, clunky and unconvincing that you can be forgiven for desperately wishing that, like Cage's unnamed drifter, no one in the feature spoke.
It isn't hard to squander Cage's talents in a lacklustre-at-best movie, though. Lewis can take solace in the fact that plenty of directors have, and their star has let them. Of late, the actor's resume overflows with films that've only garnered attention because he's in them — see also: the tedious Jiu Jitsu and Primal in just the past two years — and Willy's Wonderland easily joins them. He's nowhere near his best here, but he's still the best thing about the picture. Jittery editing, oversaturated visuals and oh-so-much formula can't dampen his noiseless performance, although, conversely, he can't help Willy's Wonderland overcome its many struggles. 2021 has already let Cage completists see him drip profanity and wax lyrical about the origins of curse words in History of Swear Words, so perhaps this dialogue-free affair is just his way of retaining a sense of cosmic Cage balance. It's never anywhere near as goofy, wacky or out-there as it seems to think, however, and it's positively dull whenever its leading man is out of sight.