Written by: Matt Patti | February 12th, 2021
Willy’s Wonderland (Kevin Lewis, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
I had a great childhood during my youth. I remember going to many different tourist attractions, including beaches, theme parks, sightseeing spots and indoor trampoline arenas. One place I did not go very often, however, was the indoor arcade/family fun center Chuck E. Cheese. I remember going a few times just out of boredom, but I never had a birthday party or large event there like many kids did. The games were fun, but the food was terrible and the whole place always seemed dirty, with a weird smell. Also, the abnormal, creepy animatronic characters that would move and sing on stage every so often always freaked me out a little bit. Playing off of that fear is director Kevin Lewis’s Willy’s Wonderland, a film that explores a small-town family fun center of the same titular name. Unfortunately, just like the Chuck E. Cheese franchises that the Willy’s Wonderland center is based on, the film is more disappointing than fun.
Willy’s Wonderland begins with a sports car speeding down an empty country road. The car runs over some spike strips and comes screeching to a halt. The driver, a man of few words played by Nicolas Cage (Mandy), storms out of his car and is greeted by a mechanic in a tow truck shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, once he and the mechanic go back to his shop, he finds that he does not have enough money to pay for his car’s repairs. So he strikes a deal with local business owner Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz, Safe Haven) in which he will clean Tex’s now defunct family fun center, Willy’s Wonderland, overnight in exchange for the money needed to fix his car. While in Willy’s Wonderland, the now “janitor” discovers that it holds a dark secret as the funny-looking animatronics in the place begin coming to life and attacking him. In order to make it through the night, he must fight for survival against these possessed mascots.
I’m not entirely sure where the filmmakers were going with this film, and I’m not convinced they knew, either. First of all, they were able to secure Nicolas Cage for a film with an absurd plot line. From knowing that right there, I assumed I was in for another outrageous, wild Nicolas Cage performance and I was all for it. However, the film does not use Nicolas Cage in that way at all. Whether you love or hate his past zany performances, anyone can see that a film like Willy’s Wonderland would be the perfect vehicle for this type of performance. Instead, the film takes a much more serious tone. Cage’s character acts as a quiet loner who does not speak a single word the entire film … and I’m not exaggerating with that statement. The most we get from him are grunts. What’s worse is that he is the central character of the story. The few other supporting characters are uninteresting, with unrealistic motivations, and the actors and actresses that portray them give poor performances with shoddy line delivery.
The film also has many technical issues and strange, distracting shot choices. There is some poor effects work when it comes to the moving animatronics, and the film attempts to cover it up by accelerating their movements or adding unnecessary darkness and strobe lights to certain scenes so we cannot see what is fully going on. The filmmakers also use a ton of close-ups and seem as if they’re trying to copy the filmmaking style Darren Aronofsky used for Requiem For a Dream. While Aronofsky’s choices worked perfectly for that film, the same cannot be said for Kevin Lewis’s attempts with Willy’s Wonderland. The style simply does not fit this film and the overabundance of close-ups is distracting.
Despite the poor character work and technical flaws, there is still some fun to be had with set design and story. The environment of the Willy’s Wonderland building is displayed well. The filmmakers do a good job of making it look like a creepy, abandoned old Chuck E. Cheese-type place. The animatronics themselves are also well-made and disturbing (until they have to move, when they just look silly). The history behind the now-demented, abandoned family fun center is also intriguing, although it is told in a lazy exposition-dump halfway through the film.
Overall, Willy’s Wonderland does not live up to its potential. What could be a fun, absurdist work, complete with a vintage, ludicrous Nic Cage performance, instead takes itself too seriously and ends up being an unnecessarily gory, action-driven film with bland characters. The film’s tone simply does not match its plot. Still, there is something to appreciate in the film’s unique premise, set and animatronic design, and some entertaining action scenes. Plus, it’s fun to make light of the ridiculousness of the situation, the characters, and the concept throughout the film, even if the filmmakers don’t want you laughing.