A movie starring Nicolas Cage as a man with no name who fights a series of possessed animatronic characters in an abandoned Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant sounds suspiciously like a desperate attempt to reverse-engineer a cult movie. But three things keep Willy’s Wonderland from seeming too much like one of those ‘Cage Rage’ memes. First, it’s based on a shoestring short film made by screenwriter G.O. Parsons. Second, in classic B-movie fashion, it’s kind of a rip-off, specifically of the indie video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s. And third, Cage gives a typically sincere and atypically silent performance, muting any oddball line readings while staying true to the project’s silliness.
No reason is given for Cage’s character not speaking. In fact, little reason is given for much of anything he does: peeling through the back roads of a small town in his slick car, shotgunning cans of a retro-looking soda called Punch Pop, or (after mysteriously placed tyre spikes blow out his tires) agreeing to barter with a local cash-only mechanic who insists there aren’t any working ATMs for miles. When a local businessman offers him an overnight job cleaning up Willy’s Wonderland, a shuttered family pizza joint, in exchange for new tyres, he barely bats an eye before accepting. And even after one of the restaurant’s eight animatronic animals comes to life and attacks him, Cage’s cowboy is unfazed. He changes his Willy’s Wonderland-issued ringer t-shirt, keeps cleaning, and takes periodic breaks for pinball and soda.
To offer somewhat more relatable human behaviour, the filmmakers also introduce teenager Liv (Emily Tosta), who already knows there’s something creepy going on at Willy’s (her backstory, of course, will be revealed in time; not everyone gets to be as opaque as Cage). Against the wishes of Sheriff Lund (Beth Grant), also her legal guardian, Liv rounds up a group of friends in hopes of burning the place to the ground once and for all. When they discover that a makeshift janitor is inside, Liv insists on trying to bring him out, placing everyone into direct conflict with the remaining robo-plush beasts.
The campy fun of the movie is supposed to be watching these animatronic creatures rip apart some teens, and Cage ripping the creatures in return. There is some cheesy horror-movie novelty in these sights, but Willy’s Wonderland is most entertaining during its set-up. Having Cage say nothing beyond a few grunts of exertion (elicited by both monster fights and pinball) is a B-movie affectation that works, allowing him to cut a splendidly ridiculous figure. He matches well with the sensibilities of director Kevin Lewis, whose fast-motion cleaning montages, oddball camera angles, and energetic editing bring to mind Sam Raimi, even if he can’t quite work his material into a bloody frenzy like Evil Dead II.
In terms of story and character, Willy’s Wonderland delivers the bare minimum. It is, as advertised, about Nic Cage getting into death matches with evil animatronics, and any further subtext is just cribbed from Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play. The unpredictable joy of Cage is that having him quietly pound sodas and ritualistically crush the empties somehow feels like going above and beyond.
- Director: Kevin Lewis
- Starring: Nicolas Cage, Emily Tosta, Beth Grant
- Release date: February 12 (digital platforms)