Monday, February 15, 2021

Movie Review: WILLY'S WONDERLAND (2021)

The COVID movie drought continues, but luckily the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta had a screening of the new Nicolas Cage film Willy's Wonderland. I haven't seen a movie in theaters since Love and Monsters months ago, so off I went. Here goes...

The Plot

A mysterious drifter known only as The Janitor (we'll see why in a few minutes), played by Nicolas Cage, tears out all four tires on some convenient police road spikes near the small town of Hayesville, Nevada. The owner of the local auto shop Jed Love (Chris Warner) tells him it'll be $1,000 to fix the damage, but Tex MacAdoo (Ric Reitz), owner of the defunct family entertainment complex Willy's Wonderland, offers to cover the cost if the drifter does an overnight shift helping prepare the place to reopen.

But once The Janitor is inside, McAdoo chains the door shut, tells Jed he can't stand to hear grown men scream, and they leave. What's going on, and what are a group of local teens led by Liv (Emily Tosta) trying to do about it? As the night progresses, gruesomeness awaits as it turns out the animatronic characters of Willy's Wonderland aren't quite as inert as one might think.

The Good

*The movie is pretty entertaining with quite a number of laugh-out-loud moments. When the animatronic creatures come to life, things get wild and crazy and a lot of fun. I found this a lot more entertaining than Gremlins 2 and roughly on par with Love and Monsters, the last two films I saw in theaters. I mean it's Nicolas Cage brutalizing murderous animatronic kids' characters--that's hilarious and awesome.

*The concept is pretty original--it's not part of a major franchise and it's not a remake. The only things like it I can think of are the film Banana Splits and the video game Five Nights at Freddies. Given how Hollywood is not in one of its creative phases right now (to say the least), this gives it some pluses in my book already.

*The film's back-story is pretty cool--I'd originally thought it was one of those "Nicolas Cage needs money and will be in any movie," but it actually reflects really well on Cage himself. It was originally a short film that Cage enjoyed and offered to produce and star in. Think Tom Holland reading The Thing in the Woods and its sequel The Atlanta Incursion and offering to make them feature films if he could play protagonist James Daly. Cage made some indie filmmaker's dream come true; props to him for that. And it was shot right here in Atlanta, GA. :)

The Bad

*The movie only manages to get to 88 minutes owing to a lot of really strange long shots, especially early on when we first see The Janitor driving along. This is just a small part of my biggest problem with the movie--the camerawork is really bizarre. Lots of weird angles, lots of sped-up footage, etc. A more conventional camera style and finding some way to extend the film by adding more actual content would have been a better choice.

*The characterization is just plain weird. The Janitor never speaks at all and he has his watch set up to tell him when to drink this mysterious high-caffeine cola and when to throw the empty can away. In between battles with animatronic horrors, he makes sure to continue cleaning and refurbishing the facility and even plays pinball games repeatedly rather than doing the sensible thing and trying to escape. His eccentricities are never explained at all. One TVTropes fan theory suggests that he's been to Willy's before and he's come to take revenge, but this is never confirmed or even hinted at. Other than Liv, the teens are barely developed. 

If they'd built up the characters more, there'd be enough content to get the movie from short film to proper theatrical length without the weird camerawork. Maybe the Janitor is autistic and non-verbal but otherwise high-functioning (hence why he insists on completing the work to a high standard of quality despite all the insanity and must have his soda and play his pinball games at the appropriate times regardless of what's going on) or his muteness and unusual behavior is a consequence of injuries suffered from a previous visit to Willy's and he's been training for years for revenge. Given how this is supposed to be a horror-comedy the former plot, though thoughtful, risks being a distraction, so the second idea would probably be better. And there are some little details with the teens that could be elaborated on--one character is smart enough to know this is a bad idea, one character thinks another character is helping Liv in hopes of getting laid, two characters are in an interracial relationship, etc.

(One idea might be to have a scene or two of the teens on their own before they go get Liv and we can see more about what they're like as people. And perhaps some characterization for the animatronics themselves too.)

*Most of my first two issues with the film stem from the fact this was originally a short that they stretched out to feature length--there are ways to do that and there are ways not to. The long shots, The Janitor's multiple pinball games, etc. are in the "not" column. Given how Cage has produced a lot of movies, including some that were much better, I would think he'd know how to do this. Maybe I'll do a "how I would have done it" post on this for later, but that depends on how many people actually read this one. :)

*There's a line that's a pretty obvious shout-out to Watchmen that could've been a lot funnier, but just comes off as lame.

The Verdict

I'll give it a 6.0 out of 10, barely. Watch this on-demand once the price drops if you want to encourage originality and indie film rather than endless high-budget remakes and sequels. If you want animatronic children's characters murdering people there's always The Banana Splits.