Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Willy's Wonderland Review: Nicolas Cage Vs. Animatronics From Hell

Willy's Wonderland exists at the nexus of two significant pop culture movements that have been building over the past several years. Does it signify a likeable culmination or a loathsome chasm? That call, ultimately, is in the eye of the beholder.

First off, we have the unlikely career path of Nicolas Cage. Keep in mind, we're no longer talking about Leaving Las Vegas Oscar winner Cage, Wild at Heart badboy Cage, or even The Rock blockbuster action hero Cage — all those past incarnations now feel as distant as Madonna's various looks from the '80s. Instead, we focus on the fascinating career pivot that began around 2007, as the National Treasure franchise sputtered out, reports of personal financial struggles emerged, and Cage received huge attention from bug-eyed, off-the-wall work in The Wicker Man and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This is Nic Cage as a walking GIF, part Christopher Walken/Jeff Goldblum-esque eccentric, part Bruce Willis VoD paycheck casher, yet unique in that with projects like Netflix's recent The History of Swear Words, he seems to be having more fun than ever before.

Secondly, we have the strange saga of Five Nights at Freddy's. An indie video game franchise birthed in 2014, it blends the unsettling "happiness" of animatronic creatures at kid-friendly pizza places like Chuck E. Cheese's, a Westworld-like concept that has them transforming into self-aware killers, and the audience living vicariously through a night watchman-like employee awash in blood, horror and decapitated fuzzy robot heads. If you've never heard of Freddy's, you haven't been paying attention as you drop your kids off at grade school — backpacks, lunchboxes, sweatshirts and other merch have become ubiquitous, but Hollywood has stumbled throughout multiple starts and stops to get a movie made. And so, where there is money to be made, the off-brand opportunists step in.

Which brings us back to Willy's Wonderland, arriving at a time when both the Cage and Freddy's phenomena are at something resembling a fever pitch. In case the name doesn't clue you in, Willy's is a Freddy's movie without the IP obligations, telling the tale of a lone worker spending the night trapped inside a deranged family fun center, battling homicidal furries (and produced, inextricably, by a "Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment Company"). The fact that Cage — in full on sneering, mugging, wildly-gesticulating glory — is that worker beating a robot ostrich to death with a janitor's broom makes this particular bowl of soup all the more potentially appetizing.

Cage and his co-stars get ready to kill some furry foes

Cage plays "The Janitor," an unnamed drifter who gets a flat tire in a disturbingly quiet town. Lacking the funds to get back on the road, he strikes up the sort of deal that happens to us all on a regular basis: spend the evening cleaning up an abandoned kid's play place, and its owner will finance the automobile repairs. In no time, he's dressed in a Willy's Wonderland t-shirt and scrubbing urinals — but does he have a secret? As things turn deadly, he is surprisingly content to dismember, play pinball, and chug endless sodas that serve like Popeye's spinach and promise "a fistful of caffeine to your kisser."

He is soon joined by some townie teenagers who serve as, well, your typical slasher victims. The one with the most prominent storyline is Liv (Emily Tosta from Mayans M.C.), who wants to burn down Wonderland but first feels the need to break in and save the supposedly hapless Janitor. The best lines, however, go to Terayle Hill (Cobra Kai) who is determined to sneak his girlfriend into a private corner of Willy's Wonderland and see her "in her birthday suit."

Now we arrive at the film's fatal flaw. Nicolas Cage, who is either the film's top attraction or at least a close second behind the killer robots, does not speak a single word. Like, throughout the entire movie. It's not only a letdown, but extremely distracting to watch the film clunkily tiptoe around its own self-imposed limitations: it can't address its main character by name, tell you anything about him (even at the very end, when we'd normally learn some kind of backstory), or have him respond when anyone asks him potentially life-saving questions — typically cutting to a Nic Cage non-reaction reaction shot, followed by the other character extrapolating the necessary exposition and reciting it for our benefit while saying things to a stone-faced Cage like, "Why, you may ask?"

Silence can offer an actor the opportunity to rely on other gifts. Think of The Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Samantha Morton's Hattie in Sweet & Lowdown. Here it feels like a gimmicky swindle, bringing to mind Johnny Rotten's query as the Sex Pistols walked offstage at the conclusion of their underwhelming 1978 U.S. tour: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to see Silent Bob as the hero in a slasher flick, this is likely as close as you'll ever come.

Perhaps the most disturbing of the Willy's Wonderland gang is "Siren Sara," the only one resembling a human. Half Tinkerbell, half Samara from The Ring, she attacks her victims by moving quickly, talking creepily and doing that freaky Michael Myers head-tilt thing. She even seems to have her own wood-sprite-themed lair — presumably a function room that wouldn't allow parents to bring in outside food, truly a terrifying kind of hell unto itself.

"They baited you," Liv tells the Janitor, revealing Wonderland's horrific backstory. "You're here to be eaten and killed. Do you understand that? This town has a dark history. And it all starts with this horrible place."

This brings us to the best part of Willy's Wonderland: there is a depraved, occasionally infectious sense of humor here. Sure, a lot of it just feels liked warmed-up leftovers from Child's Play, Leprechaun, and other over-the-top killer movies (indeed, the Wonderland robots' origin involves a serial killer's satanic soul transfer, straight out of Chucky's creation tale). Nevertheless, how can you not crack a smile when you're told that imperiled families were dispatched during a private show by Willy Weasel?

Are you seeing what I'm seeing?

But every time momentum seems to be building, it goes off track again with a cliche like "He's not trapped in here with them, they're trapped in here with him!" which was a great line when Rorschach said it in Watchmen. The editing is slipshod enough that you'll spot Cage with a bandage, then a couple scenes later watch him get the injury that necessitates it; the script has one character saying Willy's Wonderland was built in 1996, and a song stating its opening as 1984. The look of the movie can best be described as "somebody needs to stop watching Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video."

The music (largely written and performed by a composer billed as "Emoi") is really fun. It starts with a catchy birthday song that will be stuck in your head long after the credits roll, and stretches into things like a "Ten Little Indians"-esque ditty that counts down the victims left to be killed. All performed, of course, by a deranged, malfunctioning animatronic band with names like Gus Gorilla, Tito Turtle (who begs "No mas, por favor!" when his victim fights back), and Knighty Knight. There's even an '80s-influenced Willy's Wonderland theme song that gives Cage an opportunity to rock out.

One of the film's other unapologetic thrills is watching Cage dispatch droids with blood (well, oil) spewing all over him and his screen-printed t-shirts in slow-motion, with intense music punctuating such moments of carnage. Sure, much of that is cribbed from Mandy (ie, the best Nic Cage movie of his "walking GIF" career stage), but like John Travolta dancing or Kevin Costner playing baseball, it just never gets old.

Also to be appreciated are original flourishes like Cammy Chameleon — a Wonderland animatronic whose attack plan is to empathize with the victim. "You don't have to be afraid of me," says the touch-feely furry, approaching one. "I can tell you so much about the other side. I can answer all your questions." The B-story involving an inexperienced officer paired with a world-weary sheriff (Beth Grant, The Mindy Project) is also more entertaining than you'd expect.

Perhaps someday, a proper Five Nights at Freddy's movie will be made. Until then, films like Willy's Wonderland and The Banana Splits Movie will continue to make attempts to fill the void. 2019's Splits resurrected characters from a fondly remembered Krofft brothers show that once delighted '70s kids with happy songs, brightly colored sets and pratfalls — transforming them into homicidal, dimly-lit would-be Jasons and Michael Myers.

Ultimately, in the realm of these Freddy's ripoffs films, your preference appears to be dependent on which past-their-prime pop culture icon you want to see soaked in blood: the Banana Splits, Nic Cage, or whoever comes next.