Postponing its original premiere date in response to COVID-19, the comedic horror film Willy’s Wonderland made its much anticipated debut on February 12th through video on demand. With Nicolas Cage leading an intriguing story reminiscent of childhood memories at Chuck E. Cheese, the film appears to be a fresh exploration of various horror subgenres and a great addition to Cage’s filmography. However, less than 30 minutes into the film it becomes clear that Willy’s Wonderland was nothing more than an incomplete concept riding on the image of sinister animatronics and the reputation tied to Cage’s name.
The film follows a quiet traveler (Cage) who becomes stranded in the isolated town of Hayesville, Nevada when his car suddenly breaks down. Unable to pay for repairs, the town’s mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner) suggests working it off by spending the night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family amusement center. The silent drifter agrees, unaware of the wonderland’s dark history, and becomes its new “janitor.” But things quickly take a murderous turn when he discovers that the center’s eight animatronic mascots are actually alive and hostile. Determined to retrieve his car, he engages in a gory, overnight war with the animatronics and receives some surprising help from a young teen, Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta), and her group of friends.
Cage is a familiar name in both the thriller and horror genre, but it’s his most recent work in the films Mandy and Color Out of Space that have captured people’s attention. While Cage’s performances make him a promising and exciting actor to look forward to in Willy’s Wonderland, the film ultimately struggles to execute its comedic horror plot and fails to utilize Cage’s potential.
Unfortunately, besides the occasional grunts he lets out while battling the vicious animatronics, Cage remains silent during the entire film. While there are a variety of well-executed modern films with little to no dialogue, most notably The Artist, Cage’s flat performance somehow made his lack of lines bad. Mysteriously walking from scene to scene with an empty stare, Cage’s silent Janitor evoked the “bad boy” character Eric Slater (Harland Williams) from the SNL spin-off film, Superstar. And the film only made it worse by emphasizing his character’s four main qualities: quietness, cleanliness, love for energy drinks and pinball, and the ability to combat Willy’s group of animatronics. From his first duel with Ozzie Ostrich to his final battle with Tito Turtle, Cage’s character surprises viewers with his fighting skills, frequent disposing of oil-soaked shirts and his routine snack breaks to play pinball. Rather than using his odd traits as an opportunity to dig deeper, these qualities simultaneously stimulate questions and deny answers about the Janitor and his history. The more viewers wonder about the Janitor, the more the film reasserts these defining qualities almost as if we’re being told ‘he is the way he is just because we said so.’
Cage did have some noteworthy moments, especially alongside his co-star Tosta. While Tosta seemed to struggle on her own, the minute Cage entered the frame both of their performances significantly improved. The two have great chemistry with the Janitor as the quiet and tough parental figure and Liv as the brave and good-hearted child. But that’s about it. Liv and her group of friends, who appeared to be the film’s attempt at recreating a teen friend group similar to The Breakfast Club, were as equally flat as the Janitor, except they had lines.
The friend group contains a handful of tropes from Kathy Barnes (Caylee Cowan), the sexual blonde bimbo, to Chris Muley (Kai Kadlec), the shy guy, with Liv serving as their leader and the film’s racially ambiguous Final Girl. Throughout the film Liv’s race goes unmentioned, only hinting at her past through a flashback, but unlike her friends of color, Bob McDaniel (Terayle Hill) and Dan Lorraine (Jonathan Mercedes), her race doesn’t define her. By the end of the film her race is loosely identified through a poorly crafted scene with Tito Turtle, the sombrero-wearing Latino member in Willy’s animatronic team. “Sucks to be you chica,” he says, hitting her. “Sucks to be you pendejo,” Liv responds as she smacks him. It’s this moment and this specific interaction that is used to emphasize Liv’s Latina identity and give viewers a reason to cheer her on, but it’s almost impossible to cheer or feel for anyone in Willy’s Wonderland. Such scenes demonstrate the film’s inability to develop its plot and characters beyond its fragile, one-dimensional structure.
Featuring poorly written characters and dialogue that made the film feel like a student project, Willy’s Wonderland did have a few good moments and a surprising amount of catchy tunes sung mostly by Willy and his partners. Take the Janitor’s cleaning montages or the flashbacks narrated by Liv and Sheriff Eloise Lund (Beth Grant), for example. These instances felt worthwhile, providing a small amount of insight into different characters’ lives and the history of Willy’s Wonderland. Unfortunately, a few well-crafted scenes weren’t enough to support the rest of the film but it did become especially refreshing and fun to hear these jingles instead of a jumble of lines like, “Let’s play hide and seek. You’ll never find me. I’m gonna eat your eyes out and then feast on your soul.” The only incentive to sit down and watch down all 88 minutes of Willy’s Wonderland is perhaps Cage’s brief, but wonderful dance scene as he plays pinball. Passionately hitting the controls and swiveling his hips, Cage reminds viewers that having fun is what it’s all about here at Willy’s Wonderland.