Review: ‘Willy’s Wonderland,’ starring Nicolas Cage

April 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Willy’s Wonderland” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Willy’s Wonderland”

Directed by Kevin Lewis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Hayesville, Nevada, the horror film “Willy’s Wonderland” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his car breaks down in a remote area, an unnamed loner agrees to pay for the repairs by cleaning an abandoned funhouse that has some sinister secrets and a group of animatronic mascots that kill. 

Culture Audience: “Willy’s Wonderland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and people who don’t mind slasher flicks with hollow characters and a concept that quickly wears thin.

Emily Tosta and Nicolas Cage in “Willy’s Wonderland” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Willy’s Wonderland” wastes its unique production design and potentially clever premise by just becoming another repetitive slasher flick. Nicolas Cage’s one-dimensional performance becomes a complete bore. The rampaging animatronic mascots in the film have more memorable personalities than the human characters.

Yes, “Willy’s Wonderland” is about a funhouse with animatronic figures that kill. The movie could have been a wildly funny and entertaining horror story, but it’s unable to sustain much of its appeal and tension during the last two-thirds of the film. It just becomes a tiresome checklist of people who get killed in uninspired and gory ways. It’s also very easy to predict who will be the last ones standing as the survivors at the end of the movie.

Directed by Kevin Lewis and written by G.O. Parsons (in his feature-film debut as a screenwriter), “Willy’s Wonderland” certainly can be commended for its entrancing and eye-catching production design of the Willy’s Wonderland funhouse that’s at the center of the story’s mayhem. (The “Willy’s Wonderland” funhouse scenes were actually filmed at PopCom in Atlanta.) Unfortunately, it looks like the filmmakers of “Willy’s Wonderland” put more thought into how the movie looks than into developing an engaging story that delivers surprises or meaningful characters.

Cage is the unnamed protagonist of “Willy’s Wonderland” who becomes the unwitting main target in this deadly funhouse. In the beginning of the movie, his car breaks down after getting a flat tire in the small, remote town of Hayesville, Nevada. Hayesville is so behind-the-times, it doesn’t have Internet service.

Meanwhile, this unlucky stranger gets a ride from truck driver passing by named Jed Love (played by Chris Warner), who takes him to the nearest mechanic, who will only accept cash as payment. But this stranger is out of luck because the only ATM machine in town doesn’t work. What’s a cash-strapped owner of a broken car to do when the closest mechanic will only take cash?

If he’s in a mindless horror movie like “Willy’s Wonderland,” he doesn’t consider other options, like calling to find a car repair service that will take other payments besides cash. No, he takes a “too good to be true” offer from a guy named Tex Macadoo (played by Ric Reitz), who steps in at just the right moment. Tex tells this stranger that he will pay to have this stranger’s car fixed. All the stranger has to do is spend a night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family fun center that Tex owns and says he has plans to re-open.

Tex says that these janitor duties can only take place at night, and whoever cleans the place has to spend the entire night there. These requirements immediately sound suspicious, but some people will do anything to get their broken car fixed for free. Of course, there’s more to the Willy’s Wonderland story than Tex is willing to tell this stranger, who will be called the Janitor in this review, since that’s the name that’s listed for him in the film’s credits.

Meanwhile, there’s someone in town who hates Willy’s Wonderland and everything it stands for so much, she tries to burn the whole place down. Her name is Liv Hawthorne (played by Emily Tosta), an orphaned teenager who is quickly arrested for this attempted arson of Willy’s Wonderland. And it just so happens that Liv’s adoptive mother is the town’s chief law enforcement officer: Sheriff Eloise Lund (played by Beth Grant), who handcuffs Liv to a trailer.

Liv screams at Sheriff Lund: “You’re a bitch!” Sheriff Lund replies sarcastically, “I love you too,” as she leaves to go back to work. Liv doesn’t stay handcuffed for long, because her friends come by to rescue her: Chris (played by Kai Kadlec) is Liv’s airhead love interest. The other members of Liv’s teenage clique are Caylee Cowan (played by Kathy Banes), Bob McDaniel (played by Terayle Hill), Aaron Powers (played by Christian Del Grosso), Dan Lorraine (played by Jonathan Mercedes), Jerry Robert Willis (played by Grant Cramer), who are all just there because every slasher movie needs a body count.

And what a coincidence: Liv and her pals head over to Willy’s Wonderland on the same night that the Janitor is working there. The Janitor soon finds out that he’s not safe in Willy’s Wonderland after all. There are are eight talking animatronic mascots, and they are all just waiting to kill people: ringleader Willy the Weasel (voiced by Jiri Stanek), Siren Sara (played by Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (voiced by Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (voiced by Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (voiced by Christopher Bradley), Knighty Knight (voiced by Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (voiced by Billy Bussey) and Ozzie the Ostrich (voiced by BJ Guyer).

By the time Liv and her friends arrive at Willy’s Wonderland to commit some vandalism, the Janitor has managed to fend off attacks from Ozzie and Gus. The teenagers meet the Janitor, and Liv has news for him, in case it wasn’t obvious enough: “You’re here as a human sacrifice.” Liv also says that that Willy’s Wonderland being a murder trap is the town’s dirty little secret. It’s eventually revealed why Willy’s Wonderland ended up being a sanctuary of evil. The rest of the movie is just a series of violent fights with the humans against the attacking animatronic mascots.

Cage’s role as the Janitor could have been more interesting, but the character doesn’t talk in the movie. He’s almost as robotic as the animatronic mascots. It’s never explained if he’s deliberately mute or has a genuine speech disability, but the movie gives the impression that it’s more likely that he’s made a choice not to talk because he doesn’t really like to be around people. One of the biggest disappointments in “Willy’s Wonderland” is that this protagonist has a severe lack of a personality.

Liv (generically played by Tosta) has a backstory that explains why she has a personal hatred of Willy’s Wonderland. It’s not a surprise, considering that she’s an orphan. Liv’s friends are underdeveloped characters who don’t leave much of an impression because their purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is.

“Willy’s Wonderland” might be amusing to people who think it’s hilarious to see animatronic figures acting like murderers. The problem is that these killing scenes just become tedious after a while. The “jokes” in the movie are witless. And the suspense quickly disappears when it becomes obvious that “Willy’s Wonderland” is just following the same over-used formula that too many other substandard slasher movies have used before, with diminished returns and underwhelming results.

Screen Media Films released “Willy’s Wonderland” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 12, 2021. “Willy’s Wonderland” is also available for streaming on Hulu.

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