Thursday, 11 February 2021

WILLY'S WONDERLAND review

When a silent, perma-snarling drifter (Nicolas Cage) sustains tyre damage to his car when travelling through small-town Hayesville, he finds himself saddled with a $1000 bill for the repairs and no way to pay it. Agreeing to work off his debt by spending the night cleaning Willy's Wonderland, a run-down family restaurant populated by animatronic characters, he faces more than he bargained for when the machines start to violently attack him, all while a group of vengeful teens are trying to burn the place down.

With no disrespect to the man, there's something of an expectation in recent Nicolas Cage movies that's now being milked for all it's worth by film marketing departments. Writ large on many Cage film posters from the last few years is the promise that this is his most "extreme", most "crazy" appearance yet - a reputation that simply can't be sustained, not even by Nicolas Cage. And so for fans of his regular output (and it is certainly that, with 18 feature films completed in the last three years and a Joe Exotic mini-series still to come) there's an omni-present feeling that his films don't live up to the hype, despite the best efforts of Cage to one-up himself, appeasing his fans with wild outbursts and oddball line-readings that create these buzz worthy moments.

With Willy's Wonderland he's trying something a bit different. Also on board as a producer, Cage's drifter (an un-named man known only as The Janitor) rolls into town not looking for trouble but inevitably finding some, facing off against a group of raggedy-looking, psychotic animatronic puppets, all whilst not saying a single word. Yes, the actor famous for some of the most gloriously insane lines of dialogue in film history, the stuff of YouTube compilation dreams, plays a character who remains completely mute throughout the film, even when he's taking on Ozzy Ostrich armed only with a mop or Gus Gorilla with a toilet plunger. There's no mistaking that this is a choice of the character to not engage with other people's bullshit rather than any physical impairment, and although I haven't gone back to check the original script to check, it wouldn't surprise me one iota to discover that this was a character choice made by Cage on the first day of filming in order to flex his acting muscles whilst also subverting the audience expectation of him.

The premise of Willy's Wonderland is pretty basic, really, riffing on the old 'spend one night in a haunted mansion' trope and adding in an admirably cheeky amount of the cult video game, Five Nights at Freddy's. Whereas the game sees a security guard have to spend consecutive nights fending off Freddy Fazbear and his psychotic animatronic friends in a dark, moody, family restaurant, Willy's Wonderland sees a JANITOR spend ONE night fending off WILLY WEASEL and his psychotic animatronic friends in a dark, moody, family restaurant. Actually, what am I saying? They're completely different premises and are LEGALLY NOT THE SAME THING. To be fair to the writer of Willy's Wonderland, despite the obvious similarities, the intellectual property rights must have been looked at and cleared beforehand (attempts to make an official FNaF film adaptation have repeatedly fallen through), and the brazenness of it all goes towards the tongue in cheek attitude that works in the film's favour.

There's some gloriously stupid shenanigans as to why this family restaurant ended up housing a group of homicidal maniacs - involving a suicide ritual, a dark secret that implicates the entire town, and Beth "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion" Grant's local Sheriff - but the film moves by quickly enough that you don't pay more attention than is necessary to the plot, instead delivering you set-piece after set-piece of a blood-spattered Cage taking on Willy and his animal friends as they sing their super-catchy birthday song with murderous intent. These confrontations do become a bit 'samey' after a while and are more reliant on being bloody than they are scary. Even after the film introduces the group of cliche-driven, stereotypically annoying teens (lead by best of the bunch, Emily Tosta) to the mix and they become fodder for the furry freaks, a near re-setting of the same scene kicks in (you might say, almost like a video game) as Cage's janitor cleans a room, picks off an enemy, leaves them in a trash bag by the door for the morning and then has to start back at square one again, cleaning up the bloody mess he's just made.

Having Cage vocalise the madness going on around him might have been a hat on a hat, but it's a pity Willy's Wonderland won't get included among those numerous YouTube compilations as it's enjoyably daft fun that can be ranked high in Cage's recent filmography. His janitor is a cool, calm, Snake Plissken-esque bad-ass who takes the attacks from the 7-foot furries with fury in his stride, hoping to get through the night with his supply of energy drinks and a few games of pinball. It's even more of a pity that Willy's Wonderland was deprived of its planned theatrical release back in October, as it's a film that would benefit a great deal from the presence of a crowd - this would have gone down a storm at Frightfest with its Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama/Waxwork vibe - but watching from your sofa it still delivers plenty of ridiculous, over the top "Cage Rage" moments, even if it's hard not to miss those one-liners.

Verdict

3.5/5

Signature Entertainment Presents Willy’s Wonderland Home Premiere on Digital Platforms 12th February


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