Children Check In, But They Don't Check Out
Nick Cage is, of course, a treasure. He's an Academy Award winning actor who can, indeed, act. But he also has a tendency to go for big, broad, dumb parts that let him indulge his overacting impulses. A restrained Nick Cage performance is still three tiers of overacting in comparison to anyone else in the industry and, more often than not, Nick Cage does not restrain himself. That is what we love about him, the unhinged quality he brings to movies like Face/Off and Drive Angry. When you go to a Nick Cage film, this is what you expect.
He is the perfect actor to hire for a film about animatronic characters brought to life to kill people. When Willy's Wonderland was announced, it was basically thought of as an off-brand Five Nights at Freddy's (a video game series about homicidal animatronic creatures), and the selling point was that off-brand pastiche alongside Nick Cage. "He's gonna fight animatronic creatures? I'm in." This was pure Nick Cage cheese. And, thing is, Nick Cage brings it in a really weird, truly odd-ball performance. The sad part is that the rest of the film isn't able to match the rage in the Cage at center of it all.
Cage plays the Janitor, a nameless dude driving across the country who is forced to stop in Hayesville, North Carolina, after all four tires on his car pop (it's blamed on kids leaving a spiked board in the road, but, as we'll come to see, likely this was premeditated). Forced to seek automotive help, the town's local garage owner, Jed Jove (Chris Warner), just happens to be driving past and offers to tow the man's car. The guy doesn't say much (ever) so Jed does all the talking. And when the bill for the tires comes up, he makes an offer to the silent driver: you need to earn some cash and, as it just so happens, there's a job that needs doing. We need you to go into Willy's Wonderland and clean the place up overnight. Do that and the car will be fixed up in the morning.
The man accepts, silently walking into Willy's Wonderland to do the job that needs doing. Willy's is a Chuck-E-Cheese knock off, a pizza party center with dancing, musical animatronics But the creatures are also evil, coming to life at night and attacking anyone in the building. The janitor doesn't seem to care, easily dispatching them as they come for him. But when a group of teens wander into the building, all so they can rescue the janitor and then burn the building down, that's when the carnage really happens. It's a fight through the night for the janitor and his companions, and the forced of Willy might just have the edge.
I like the concept of Willy's Wonderland for sure. There's something inherently creepy about animatronic creatures, and that creepiness pervades the film every time they're on screen. It's the same creepiness that gave Five Nights at Freddy's it's vibe (I assume as I haven't played the games or seen any of its other media). You look at the critters with their dead eyes and greasy fur suits and you want to get as far away from them as you can. Turning them into homicidal monsters seems like a good way to get some real horror. Sadly, it's not.
The problem with Willy's Wonderland is that the creature effects just aren't up to par for what's required. They're basically weird fur suits, of course, and there are performers inside the suits having to do stunts. While I haven't worn a fur suit myself, I've known people that have worn them and they can attest that it's hard to so anything besides stand and walk (and maybe not even walking) in those suits. Wearing a fur suits has always sounded like a punishing experience, so I can't even imagine what the performers here had to go through to play these creatures.
But that also means the people in the suits also couldn't really do much effectively. They couldn't stalk, they couldn't run, they couldn't really be scary because they lacked the right presence when they moved. They're awkward, not effective, and that limits what they can do, even when it comes to the kills. The movie has to shoot around their limitations, but the creatures are on screen all the time (so they can't be shadowy presences like the shark in Jaws). The concept is great, but the execution in the film is absolutely lacking.
The action from Cage was also bad. I liked Cage's performance when he didn't have to be in action hero mode, but it felt like Cage was holding himself back whenever he had to engage with the monsters in the film. Maybe it's age (the actor was 58 at the time of filming) or maybe he had to take care due to the suits and the people within, but all the action in the movie felt airy and fake. This is supposed to be about a silent hero beating the shit out of animatronics and the shit-beating was absolutely lacking impact or realism here. The action, in short, was boring.
With that said, the film finds some life when it focuses on Cage playing his silent hero. His character has absolutely no lines in the film, instead going about just grunting occasionally or saying absolutely nothing at all. Everything we know about him is conveyed through his actions and his demeanor. It's actually a really fun role for Cage, forcing him to bring his full, unhinged performance while never once opening his mouth. I could watch Cage do this for several films and it would never get old.
It would have just been nice of the rest of the film could have been at the same level. I like actress Emily Tosta, playing teen heroine Liv Hawthorne, but her acting isn't quite there yet. She feels a little rough and uneven. I am sure she'll grow as an actress as she has the charisma here already, but she needs more time working to really get there. She has a hard job to play against a character that doesn't talk, and though she tries, you can tell she struggles to make it work. She's still better than the rest of the teen actors, who aren't really able to make their characters interesting. Even the older veterans feel bland here, playing one note characters that don't rise to the occasion.
But it's the creature effects that fail the film. I could forgive the weaker acting and threadbare characters if the creature performances were up to par. But they're weak, and they drag down the action. That in turn drags down the scares. You're then forced to watch the film for the characters and the only one worth caring about is the one that doesn't say anything at all. Cage deserves all the credit for that, but that's all I can give to the film. Watch this movie for Nick Cage, sure. If you want a good, off-brand version of Five Nights at Freddy's (maybe because the creator of that series, Scott Cawthon, has hard right political views), this film isn't really it. It could have been, but it fails to rise to the occasion.