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REVIEW: Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

Willy’s Wonderland was a film that I’d heard of all the way back in 2019, after seeing The Banana Splits Movie, and have been anticipating it ever since then. But, now that it’s out, has it been worth the wait or should this film be thrown away like a broken animatronic?

Co-produced and starring Nicolas Cage, Willy’s Wonderland revolves around The Janitor, an energy drinking, silent citizen. After his car tires burst, he is told that, if he spends the night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, a children’s theme park restaurant, his car will be repaired. However, The Janitor soon discovers that the animatronics there are anything but nice…and they’ve picked on the wrong guy!

Willy’s Wonderland is what the horror genre was desperately in need of: a fast-paced action/horror with a few good scares to boot. And the opening scene lets viewers know exactly what they’re in for: two staff workers are being chased and then killed by…something. There’s blood, terror and handheld cinematography. From that point on, the film is extremely well paced and takes its time to tell its story, taking viewers on a crazy night shift fronted by the silent Janitor.

And, yes, Nicolas Cage does not utter a single word in this film. Aside from the 2017 film The Shape of Water, it’s rare for a modern film to have a silent main character. The absence of dialogue can make for a challenging task as all the actors’ expression has to come from their facial expressions; they have to be more expressive than they normally would be. But what better actor to choose than Nicolas Cage?! Casting him was a genius idea and he immediately dives into the role of the calm but crazy robot killer.

It’s also refreshing to see a film where the main character doesn’t care about the exposition he’s being given later on in the film. All he sees is the end goal once this strange night is over. And, by the end of the film, The Janitor doesn’t grow as a character. He hasn’t changed in any way and the viewers still don’t know his background or much about him. While this would usually be an aspect that would personally encourage criticism, it works here: The Janitor knows he can’t be touched and beats any metallic obstacle that gets in his way, with success. The lack of a backstory with this character also makes him mysterious: we have more questions than answers by the end of the film and that’s OK.

However, this isn’t just the Cage and animatronics show. Outside of the restaurant are a group of young adult characters, fronted by Liv (played by Emily Tosta). While most of these characters exist just to be animatronic food, they do serve another purpose too: Liv wants to put a stop to the bloodthirsty robots and burn the place to the ground. She’s a likable character and her reasonings make sense: who wouldn’t want this place gone?! The other characters don’t have proper introductions and, even when things go downhill, they stay as one-dimensional characters. But, like I said, they exist to be hunted by Willy Weasel and his friends.

And the animatronics are creepy! Willy’s Wonderland does a fantastic job at making the robotic characters look creepy in modern times, but also adorable looking when the restaurant was open: it’s clear that time, as well as wear and tear, has gotten to these robots. This is also illustrated in the film’s colour scheme: while the outside world is full of dull greys and browns, the inside of Willy’s Wonderland has some colour to it, albeit dull colouring, but it’s there. There once was life and joy in this restaurant, but time has moved on, letting it decay.

The animatronics’ appearances are also memorable; something that is wanted in a restaurant with so called famous characters; they have to be memorable and they definitely are. They all stand out not only just in appearance, but in attacks too: Knighty Knight holds a giant sword, while Willy attacks with his razor-sharp claws, and Siren Sara is fast and stealthy, using her abnormally large jaw to bite her victims. The cinematography also helps to make them scary: the first few shots that are seen of the robots is of Ozzie the Ostrich; a panning shot slowly reveals the stage behind The Janitor…and the Ostrich very slowly moving. It’s subtle but very effective, and similar techniques are used later on in the film. However, the cinematography and quick cuts used during the fight scenes does make the action difficult to follow at times, making these scenes confusing.

Willy’s Wonderland is a film that was not only wanted by me, but a film that was needed in the horror genre. These types of absurd, fast paced films are what make the genre fun for me. Nicolas Cage is fantastic as The Janitor, and it’s refreshing to see a main character not care about the information he’s given; he’s just there to do a job and he’ll do it. The animatronics are creepy and stand out from each other, not just in appearance, but personality and attacks too. They’re also characters that I would happily have as figures to put on my shelf! And, while the editing during some of the fight scenes can make the action difficult to follow, there are a lot of beautiful shots in Willy’s Wonderland.

Anyway, I think it’s time to sing The Birthday Song* because the animatronics of Willy’s Wonderland are here, and they’re not going down without a fight!

*A song I guarantee you’ll get stuck in your head

Rating: ★★★★


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