Synopsis: When his car breaks down, a quiet loner (Nicolas Cage) agrees to clean an abandoned family fun center in exchange for repairs. He soon finds himself waging war against possessed animatronic mascots while trapped inside Willy’s Wonderland.
After being left aside as a VOD leading man, Nicolas Cage intelligently reinvented his persona to become a genre film stalwart. His one-in-a-kind presence serves as a playful tool for crafty directors to enhance their uniquely-fitted visions. Whether it’s the Lovecraftian horrors of Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space or the B-movie appeals of the sci-fi/kung-fu hybrid Jiu Jitsu, Cage’s unique wavelength continues to tune into his director’s varied frequencies.
The star’s latest low-rent vehicle, Willy’s Wonderland, loosely riffs on Five Night at Freddy’s macabre distortion of childhood iconography. It’s a great set-up, one that sets up plentiful opportunities for slasher bloodshed and gleeful genre moments. Sadly, all that promise morphs into a competent yet creatively marred vision from director Kevin Lewis.
That’s not to say Lewis’s effort lacks some guilty pleasure allures. His dimly-lit aesthetics are a capable match for the film’s plethora of murderous, flesh-eating mascots. There’s an inherently twisted glee in seeing these Chuck E. Cheese-esque creations recklessly throw out vulgarities in their unending pursuit of immoral crimes. When the director is able to tap into the premise’s over-the-top mania, he unleashes a flurry of intimately shaky frames painted with colorful buckets of bloodshed. Lewis and screenwriter G.O. Parsons admirably never take their offering too seriously, implementing a few humorously bizarre frames along the way (Cage’s nonverbal protagonist often takes breaks to practice his pinball wizardry).
While Willy’s Wonderland presents some self-awareness, the script does little of note with its high-concept premise. Parsons implements some flat world-building devices that rarely imbue much in terms of dimension. His script occasionally ruminates on the darkness lurking beneath some sinister, family-friend figures, but a lack of satire or substance adds little perspective on the dynamic. Parsons also seems to confuse cheeky homages as utilizing tired plot contrivances, settling on the bare minimum of characterization to pull the listless narrative forward.
Considering the wildly unkempt premise at hand, Willy’s Wonderland is a little too stiff for its own good. Lewis’s direction works capably enough on a visual level, yet his passe hold on the narrative lacks a sense of tension. The movie just kind of wanders by without balancing the horror and comedic tonalities in the process. It’s also a bummer to see Cage’s firey charms reduced into a silent action hero. I was left sorely missing the kind of guilty pleasure moments only he can manifest.
Nic Cage fighting demonic animatronics sounds like a blast on paper, but Willy’s Wonderland mostly settles for the bare minimum with its inventive premise.
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