Sometimes, the movie experience you need most is the one with the least number of hurdles to get over. There’s a comfort that comes from a film that’s so straight-forward and streamlined that you can just kick back and enjoy it without concern. This aptly describes the Kevin Lewis-directed, G.O. Parsons-written Willy’s Wonderland, releasing on Blu-ray and DVD April 13th. A marvelous action-comedy-horror hybrid, Willy’s primarily focuses on one-night within former party palace Willy’s Wonderland as eight soul-possessed animatronics try to kill their latest human sacrifice in the form of the nameless janitor (Nicolas Cage). That alone offers the potential for peak Cage Rage, so a twist is required: The Janitor is a wordless performance. If this mix of surreal and the macabre sound like your ideal, put on a party hat and blow up the balloons, it’s time to go to Willy’s Wonderland.
If you prefer to go into Willy’s Wonderland spoiler-free (and you should), head over to the initial release review. Moving forward, there will be spoilers.
On his way through the outskirts of Hayesville, a man (Nicolas Cage) accidentally drives over a spike strip, immediately blowing out all four tires, leaving him stranded by the roadside. Unable to pay the truck driver/mechanic Jed Love (Chris Warner) for tow and repairs, the driver is offered a night’s work at Love’s friend Tex Macadoo’s (Ric Reitz) business as compensation. All the man has to do is spend the night cleaning up Macadoo’s family entertainment business Willy’s Wonderland and, by sun rise, the car will be waiting for him outside. The easy job turns deadly, however, as the eight animatronics come to life one-by-one and the only thing they want is the new janitor’s soul.
One of the best things about Nicolas Cage is that he brings 100% to every job. It doesn’t matter if it’s material like the phantasmagorical Mandy (2018), the family-friendly National Treasure (2004), vocal work for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018), or the absolute ridiculousness that is Willy’s. Because of that, the simplicity of his character and, in turn, the film becomes much deeper and richer. One way to look at Cage’s performance is that it’s just the Janitor looking serious in one scene (fighting monsters) versus being silly in another (on break with the pinball machine he’s lovingly brought back to life) all while pounding his drink of choice (the fictional Punch). With only his physical performance to rely on, there’s actually more work to be done in order for the audience to enjoy themselves. With all the negative space made available by the lack of dialogue, I like to interpret the Janitor as a veteran (we briefly see dog tags in the opening intro sequence) who’s seen some things in his career which is why a) he seems unperturbed after the first altercation involving Ozzie the Ostrich (BJ Guyer) and b) he utilizes a variety of fighting techniques to battle and subdue his opponents. There’s a calmness about Cage’s performance, a stillness, even when things are at their most insane, that is downright comical by comparison. This isn’t “the best” Cage performance, but it’s one of my favorites simply for how minimal it is and how much it asks for the audience to go along with.
Cage’s Janitor isn’t the only subversive element of Willy’s. There’s the fodder for the horror machine. In this case, it comes in the form of prior Willy’s survivor Liv (Emily Tosta), a name so on the nose Parsons had to be making a joke here, and her motley crew of local kids who arrive to save the Janitor and burn Willy’s the ground. In horror, the victim(s) and Final Girl usually are part of the same group, each learning the truth about their predicament at the same time. In this case, the Janitor doesn’t care (at least that’s the interpretation due to his chill demeanor and willingness to leave the kids to fend for themselves once his break starts) and the kids already know the deal. They exist in this story just to give the audience (us) the information we need to understand the “why” of Willy’s, though, to be honest, it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. Instead, Liv and her friends provide the audience with a chance to see how truly dangerous Willy’s crew is since they seem fairly tame against the Janitor. This isn’t Saw levels of gore, but you definitely get the idea that these demonic animatronics are capable of real harm and understand why the locals have been feeding these beasts for years. If not for the sacrifices of Liv’s dumb friends, the animatronics would never seem like a threat at all. To their credit, the cast of human sacrifices, in the small opportunities they’re given, aren’t just stereotypes of small town teens. Yes, there’s the one who’s into Liv, the couple, the “drug” dealer, and the odd friend out, but they aren’t just these things. Of the crew, the standouts are Caylee Cowan’s Kathy and Terayle Hill’s Bob who play the sole couple in the film. As written and performed, Kathy is a respected member of the crew, displaying several instances of intelligence over the rest even though the character is costumed like the horror genre’s typical sexual provocateur. Similarly, without making the obvious self-referential jokes that other films make regarding their Black characters, Willy’s sees Hill lending a credence to the threat level, often trying to be the voice of reason within the situation. The fact that he doesn’t make it speaks more to hormones and the need to feed the meat grinder than any personal defect. Presumably, if you’ve made it this far into the review, you’ve seen the film already, but, if you haven’t, here’s your photosensitivity warning for the death sequences of the crew after Christian Del Grosso’s Aaron is killed by Knighty Knight (Duke Jackson). The lights blink in such an odd pattern that it may create some discomfort in those who are sensitive to strobing.
If, like me, you enjoyed the film, then you’ll dig on these special features and, frankly, wish they were longer. Of the eight bonus features, one is the theatrical trailer and three are photographic galleries of either teaser posters, character posters, or production design artwork that served as guides for the film. The first three are not exactly robust, but at least the production design gallery is informative and interesting, especially for those curious about the process of creative ideation. The good stuff comes in the form of the other four, mostly brief, featurettes that allow a closer look at the four primary elements of Willy’s Wonderland in order from shortest to longest: the cast, the animatronics, the set, and the making of the film. Be advised that the “Fresh Meat (The Cast)” featurette is only available on Blu-ray and DVD editions of the release, which, at 1:12 minutes is an odd thing to lock to physical editions. There’s barely enough time to either get to know or explore the actors and their respective characters before it ends, so expanding on it a bit would’ve been nice. Similarly, the teases of information we get learning about the animatronics in the 1:45 minute “Colorful Darkness and the Demon-Atrons” just creates frustration. For instance, learning that each of the animatronics had different approaches for design seems obvious until you get a glimpse of shooting and how they had to use the suits in chronological order in order to show stress on the animatronics in as close to real-time as possible. Learning that Ozzy was executed in Japanese bunraku style makes the fight scene with the Janitor a little more hilarious. The featurette “Set Tour with Christian Del Grosso” clocks in at 2:18 and seems to stop mid-sentence as an alarm sounds (presumably to call him back to set), cutting short his walkthrough of the set. There’s not far Del Grosso can get in less than two minutes, so stretching that out would’ve been nice in terms of increasing the sense of the space and approach to shooting.
This brings us to the final featurette and, frankly, the best one: “Inside the Fun: The Making of Willy’s Wonderland.” At 7:39 minutes, we get to hear from the cast, crew, producers, and Lewis, all while being shown behind the scenes moments on set. For those that really dig Willy’s this is the featurette you’ll enjoy the most not because it’s the most expansive of the lot, but because it offers some insight into Cage’s interest in the project as well as the approach to the character, how they shot a few scenes, and other tasty bits for the cinematic enthusiast. Hard to say why the other portions are as brief as they are, but, at least with “Inside the Fun,” there’s a sense that the home release offers more than just the ability to revisit the film anytime you like, there’s an opportunity here for others to learn how the film was made, perhaps inspiring a future filmmaker along the way.
Maybe it’s the wonky release schedule impacting films large and small, maybe it’s the growing frustration with what used to be easy day-to-day stuff, but there’s something about Willy’s Wonderland that just feels like catharsis. Though it does manage to pull off some fun inversion, ultimately, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel and, in the process, offers some zany fun. With that as the goal, the film is an absolute success, proving to be just as much fun on a second watch as it is a first. In fact, pair this up with Cage’s Drive Angry (2011) and upcoming Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) to create for yourself a perfectly balanced, wild Cage-centric trilogy. First up, where’d we put those birthday hats …?
Willy’s Wonderland Special Features:
- Inside the Fun: The Making of Willy’s Wonderland (7:39)
- Set Tour with Christian Del Grosso (2:18)
- Colorful Darkness and the Demon-Atrons: The Production Design of Willy’s Wonderland (1:45)
- Fresh Meat (The Cast) (1:12) (DVD Exclusive)
- Teaser Character Artwork Gallery
- Character Artwork Gallery
- Production Design Artwork Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
In theaters, on VOD, and digital February 12th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD April 13th, 2021.
For more information, head to Screen Media Films’s official Willy’s Wonderland website.