WILLY'S WONDERLAND (2021)

Willy's Wonderland.jpg

Studio:      Screen Media
Director:    Kevin Lewis
Writer:      G.O. Parsons
Producer:  Nicolas Cage, Mike Nilon, David Ozer, Bryan Lord, Grant Cramer, Jeremy Daniel Davis
Stars:     Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Rick Reitz, Chris Warner, Kai Kadlec, Christian Del Grosso, Caylee Cowan, Terayle Hill, Jonathan Mercedes, David Sheftell, Beth Grant

Review Score:

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Summary:

After accepting a job to clean up a condemned restaurant, a mysterious drifter battles animatronic animals possessed by supernatural evil.


Synopsis:     

Review:

When I was a teenager bussing tables at Chuck E. Cheese¡¯s, cleaning the main dining room at the end of the night could be a real trip. Adults and kids alike were understandably weirded out by those animatronic animals standing silently in ominous darkness. The horror fan in me loved it when a leftover electrical surge or momentary malfunction caused an eyelid to flutter unexpectedly or a torso to suddenly swivel.

Uninhabited cartoon creatures are inherently disturbing to begin with. Combine that creepiness with dark thoughts about mechanical mascots coming to life and an active imagination can run wild with murderous possibilities.

I don¡¯t remember any specific stories I might have mulled over about Mr. Munch and his pizza-peddling cronies killing me. But I¡¯m sure whatever I spontaneously dreamt up to alleviate the boredom of restocking napkin dispensers was more inventive than what little ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± does with the same scenario.

Starting with Nicolas Cage¡¯s casting, everything about ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± positions it to be fantastic midnight movie lunacy. Personally, I¡¯m not part of the populace that ironically idolizes Cage as a hammy icon of oddity. But I recognize that Nicolas Cage has built cult appeal out of overblown acting that bestows pop culture with evergreen gifts of goofiness like Wicker Man memes. Fans eat up his peculiarities, making him quite possibly the only man fit for the top spot in a riotous romp that pits him against sentient Satanic robots. If this isn¡¯t a role readymade for Nic Cage, what is?

In ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland,¡± Cage lives out an Eastwood fantasy by playing a ¡®Man with No Name¡¯ drifter. Credited only as ¡®The Janitor,¡¯ Cage gets stranded in the small town of Hayesville when a spike strip takes his Camaro out of commission. Cage¡¯s character never speaks a single word throughout the entire movie. The questionable gimmick gives Cage carte blanche to be as weird as ever with his physical tics and traits, doing confident cowboy struts in weathered leather boots, slinging sunglasses off his eyes with too cool for school stares, and hip-checking a pinball machine like John Travolta disco dancing on LSD.

Since the Janitor doesn¡¯t have cash on hand to fix his tires, a stogie-sucking tow truck driver introduces him to Tex. A subdued version of The Simpsons¡¯ Rich Texan, Tex promises to repair the Janitor¡¯s vehicle. All the Janitor has to do in return is spend the night cleaning up Willy¡¯s Wonderland, a rundown restaurant that¡¯s been out of business for years thanks to a string of suspicious deaths. The Janitor accepts the offer, kicking off a night of mechanized mayhem when the evil animatronics try to turn the Janitor into a human sacrifice.

Complicating matters is Liv, a teenage townie whose friends are determined to burn down the cursed building once and for all. Complicating matters even more is Liv¡¯s foster mother Eloise, a sheriff who knows the supernatural secret of Willy¡¯s Wonderland, because she¡¯s part of the conspiracy to cover up what really goes on within the restaurant¡¯s walls.

¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± sounds like a ¡°can¡¯t miss¡± concept, right? You¡¯ve got maniacal muppets going on a gory killing spree. You¡¯ve got Nicolas Cage at his B-movie best, karate-kicking live-action cartoon characters while embracing the throwback schlock of being a mute mystery man. On paper, ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± promises a ¡°Five Nights at Freddy¡¯s¡± riff combined with ¡°Garbage Pail Kids¡± kookiness engineered to entertain grindhouse-loving stoners. No matter how many milligrams of edibles you eat though, ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± isn¡¯t anywhere near as crazy as it could be.

80-ish minutes, which should be an easy breezy duration, turns out to be interminably too long to essentially recycle one joke. That one joke is the wannabe bonkers visual of Nicolas Cage playing Royal Rumble with stunt people in Disneyland costumes. After the initial snicker, Cage has so many similar smackdowns with anthropomorphic animals that the lack of variety becomes a drag. Willy Weasel has seven sidekicks like Gus the Gorilla and Ozzie the Ostrich. Outside of Tito the Turtle¡¯s Spanish shtick and Cammy the Chameleon¡¯s emotional mind games however, they¡¯re all interchangeably empty enemies when they should have distinct personas as big as their concept designs.

Seeming cool without actually being cool stays a persistent thorn in the movie¡¯s side. That problem starts from a script that¡¯s criminally short on creativity. A regular routine of chugging soda and playing pinball whenever his OCD alarm goes off, even if it¡¯s in the middle of a furry fight, is pretty much the only distinguishing thing about Cage¡¯s hollow hero that doesn¡¯t come from clothing. By the time we arrive at the umpteenth insert shot of Cage crushing another cola can, we find ourselves stuck in a loop of redundancy where all scenes seem the same and inconsequential side characters blend together to become as blurrily bland as the villains.

Paying Cage¡¯s contract and licensing Lynyrd Skynyrd likely left little money in the budget, which might be why ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± looks shockingly cheap to boot. Cash clearly went into the monsters too. Yet if you subtract the star and his colorful punching bags, ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± looks as lean as any other indie project pieced together by more than a dozen producers running on the fumes of one name and an attractive elevator pitch. The film even accents the ugliness of cramped sets and jaundice-tinted photography with conspicuous ADR that may or may not be intentionally obvious. But why anyone would want ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± to have the same audiovisual grime as any average dumped-to-VOD streamer, I¡¯ve no idea.

¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± really should have worked, especially on someone like me who has had Chuck E. Cheese living rent free in his head since that summer job in the early ¡®90s. But the ¡°hyuk hyuk¡± baddies and Nic Cage¡¯s neutered antihero can¡¯t carbonate the flat pop dispensed by a simple screenplay. While I would have preferred a gripping tale of toon terror regardless, maybe I wouldn¡¯t mind the movie being a mere setup for stunt work silliness if those sequences weren¡¯t so superficial. ¡°Willy¡¯s Wonderland¡± should have been a free-for-all of nutty fiction and outrageous FX, not a bunch of backyard wrestling and black goo caking straightforward kills. Who knew the tantalizing prospect of Nic Cage carving his way through homicidal pizza mascots would prove to be so disappointingly dull?

Review Score: 45