Willy’s Wonderland is a jokey elevator pitch in search of a movie. It’s the kind of genre junk—a low-rent, one-gag cartoon slasher—whose supposed gonzo appeal begins and ends with a description of its premise. The logline could have been generated by bot: What if Nicolas Cage, the internet’s favorite Hollywood wild man who never says no to a paycheck, starred in a mockbuster version of Five Nights At Freddy’s? That sounds like a recipe for cheap thrills, emphasis on the cheap. But even Cage, who can usually be counted on to enjoyably ham it up when tending to his side hustle of artless pulp, seems well aware that his name and face on the poster are all that’s really required of him here. Not since Snakes On A Plane has a film devised such a meme-friendly matchmaking scheme of star and scenario, then wrung so little out of it.
Cage has no dialogue in Willy’s Wonderland. Not one word to blurt out in an odd cadence, scream at the top of his lungs, or invest with any special oddball flavor. (Maybe that was the draw of the role—he didn’t have any lines to learn!) His character, referred to only as The Janitor, is what they used to call the strong and silent type: one of those laconic genre-movie badasses too cool for language. When his sports car breaks down in some dusty dead-end town so cut off from the world that they don’t even have internet, he’s rather quickly convinced to work off the repairs by spending the night cleaning an abandoned family fun center. But it’s not long before the nameless lug discovers that he’s been locked inside and that the animatronic occupants may be more mobile—and less family-friendly—than their Chuck E. Cheese counterparts.
That’s more or less the setup of Five Nights At Freddy’s, the indie horror sensation that spawned a whole multimedia franchise. The giddy appeal (and runaway popularity) of the Five Nights games hinges on how helpless they leave the player; they’re cruel, expertly calibrated jump-scare contraptions. Willy’s Wonderland preserves the conceit but dismantles its bump-in-the-dark fun by turning the roving kill-bots, with their cheerful mascot energy and herky-jerky motion, into mere fist fodder for an unflappable action hero. Expressing not even a modicum of surprise, let alone fright, Cage’s nameless bruiser nonchalantly bashes each into a heap of black oil and sparking electronic debris, in repetitive and choppily edited fight sequences set to the blare of generic rawk chords. (The film’s sense of humor is equally primitive, at least to those not tickled by the comedic value of an animatronic turtle in a sombrero yelping “Aye, my balls” in subtitled Spanish as he’s mercilessly clobbered.)
The robots, brought to life mostly via suits, have a certain chintzy charm; they’re like something the VHS schlock merchants at Full Moon might have unleashed in the early ’90s. But they’re never particularly scary, even when tearing through an expendable supporting cast of Riverdale wannabes. Elsewhere, director Kevin Lewis fails to transcend his budgetary limitations; this is an ugly movie, with amateurish lighting and a location that looks more like a half-dressed warehouse than a neglected play center. It’s also blatantly padded out: Even with the introduction of a teenage Scooby gang, multiple flashbacks detailing the evil origins of Willy’s, and cutaways to the town sheriff (an enormously overqualified Beth Grant), the film still has to rely on two extended montages of Cage cleaning and a whopping three of him playing pinball just to limp to nearly 90 minutes. The Hail Mary is a “Freebird” needle drop that probably cost more than the entire production; it marks the first time this writer found himself thinking back fondly on a Rob Zombie movie.
Willy’s Wonderland labors under the presumption that Cage plus killer robots automatically equals B-movie bliss, no matter how poorly staged or indifferently written. Though the actor scores a few chuckles with his wordless irritation—he has a very funny stare-down with the illustrated Willy on the front sign—one has to wonder about the logic of casting this famously unhinged performer as a silent, stoic ass-kicker. Why secure Cage, only to deny him the opportunity for a single gloriously strange line reading? For once, the star has been brought on neither to act nor outrageously overact. He’s here simply to stand around and be Nicolas Cage, conferring an instant cult allure upon a film thirsty for instant cult fandom. That makes him not so different, this time, from the monsters he’s felling: an animatronic version of himself.