'Willy's Wonderland' Review: Chuck E Sleaze served underdone

Kevin Lewis’ 'Willy's Wonderland' somehow fails to capitalize on "Nicolas Cage vs. Evil Themed Restaurant Mascots."

A stare-down in 'Willy's Wonderland.'
(Image: © Screen Media)

What to Watch Verdict

'Willy's Wonderland' is an aces concept that's bafflingly unappetizing, as the film's flimsier-than-flan groundwork contains little more substance than what's shown on the poster.


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    🌭 Kenneth Hall's monsters.

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    🌭 Original Willy's songs.

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    🌭 Cage playing pinball.

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    🌭 Fun violence for all of a second or two.


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    🌭 Becomes tiresome too quickly.

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    🌭 Doesn't care to tell a story.

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    🌭 Tries to get by on gimmickry alone.

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    🌭 A conceptual let-down.

How does Willy’s Wonderland squander Nicolas Cage pummeling animatronic Chuck E Cheese knockoffs (crafted by Critters/Puppet Master veteran Kenneth Hall) who’re under satanic possession? Awful effortlessly, I’m afraid. Kevin Lewis’ restaurant renovation ritual conceptualizes no further than personified mammal-or-reptile costumes and Émoi’s original Wonderland singalong tracks, which makes for an inexcusably forgettable dine-and-die experience. Between nameless horror-stereotype characters, rinse-and-repeat plotting, and inexcusably underdeveloped - well, everything - there’s nothing wondrous about this unhallowed excuse for B-Movie entertainment. Willy’s serves viewers a hefty helping of disappointment; Cage swinging on a fuzzy, “mechanical” weasel mascot shouldn’t be such a chorendous purgatory.

In the nowheresville town of Hayesville, Willy’s Wonderland has remained boarded and abandoned after the eatery’s owner, Jerry Robert Willis (Grant Cramer), entered a suicide pact with his staff to avoid lawful action due to multiple on-site deaths. Now, years later, townsfolk fear the souls of Jerry and his faithful inhabit Willy's den of sin. Unfortunately, “The Janitor” (Nicolas Cage) isn’t privy to this mythos and agrees to scrub Willy’s lick-the-floor clean before daybreak in exchange for repairs on his Camaro. Disgraced property owner Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz) shows the mute janitor inside, tosses him a staff shirt, and locks the door. Another routine sacrifice? Or will this mysterious drifter eliminate Willy’s carnivorous crew while sweeping away dusty scum?

Out of fairness, there are positives. Nic Cage's casting pits one of our generation’s most absurdist talents against stunt people in “robotic” costumes where humans must mimic automaton motions. Émoi’s birthday jingle, "super fun time" lyrics, and 80s power ballad anthem as Willy’s Wonderland theme are something I’ll probably insta-buy on vinyl. Hall’s fairytale-freaky costumes are functionally engaging and cartoonishly detailed, from alligators in barrettes to chameleons with stretchy tongue-weapons. Foundationally, G.O. Parson’s script lays a blueprint that imagineers bring to life as any parent’s worst celebration nightmare. Although, that’s where praise concludes.

In a curious decision, “The Janitor” is not granted a single sentence of dialogue. Lewis directs Cage as he chugs “Punch” branded soda every hour (alarm alters), washes Willy’s repulsive interior, slays one of Willy’s cronies, then re-washes the fresh bloodstains. Also, “The Janitor’s” obsessed with a custom pinball machine that he enthusiastically plays while other victims within the dining hall are brutally murdered? Cage curiously portrays his pseudo-hero as a cryptid according to press notes (much like Sasquatch). Still, by shrouding even a sliver of motivation in mystery, you’ve rendered Mr. Janitor’s stoic uniqueness utterly infuriating. Why doesn’t he speak? Does his soda refuel magical powers? What’s with the devotion to tidying Willy’s even though he’s barely dodged aggressive gorillas and fanged pixies? Nothing matters in context, which is a numbing sensation over a movie that’s nothing beyond poster gimmickry.

Plus, Willy’s Wonderland is so desperately aching for a batshit Cage monologue or at least outbursts of off-the-handle reactions. As is, he’s only allowed to “Cage the Hell” out of a single scene where “The Janitor” grooves this interpretive dance while almost orgasmically racking a high-score on pinball. There are times where directors should subdue Cage, but this is not one of them. Quite the opposite, since the silent, hyper-sterile, and deadly type built only on blank stares and overpowering physical combat (again, WHY) lands flat.

While “The Janitor” is dismantling threats and mashing arcade bumper buttons, we’re granted body count fodder in the form of firestarter rebel Liv (Emily Tosta) and her accomplices, who intend to set Willy’s aflame. “The Janitor” refuses to leave without reason, so Liv enters (through hilariously gigantic vents), trying to force an unknown male outside, and then her friends fall through a crumbled rooftop hole (that’s never again addressed) into Willy’s ball pit. From here, Liv’s bare-minimum-characterization squad gets dispatched one by one (the nervous kid, the bubblegum princess, the lovesick crush). Some during sex, others after squeaky-jointed knights with swords sneak behind for a skewer, but we’re never given a reason to care about these generic horror pawns. Once again, Cage’s inexplicable oddness and disinterest are negative factors because "The Janitor" doesn’t even care to protect Liz's moron followers. Mr. J logs extra pinball hours while Willy’s weirdos tear Liv’s friends to shreds (she barely feigns remorse) without an ounce of intrigue.

Willy’s Wonderland invests all its energy into production aesthetics, which are a draw but offer surface-value rewards. Lewis erects Willy’s tomb like a McDonald’s playpen except haunted by slasher figureheads, much like in The Banana Splits reboot. Still, fresh ideas start and begin with the font design for Willy’s logo, or Willy’s musical interludes, or Willy’s outward appearance. Exposition is scant and muddled, while action can only benefit a few brawl-worthy combos given how Cage must tango with actors limited by their machine-heads and bulky suits. Brief moments of gore chomp into once-gleeful flashback kiddies, or puncture abdomens with faux-steel, or sneak a quick decapitation after Willy’s paw swipes. Otherwise, planning and execution suggests not a single creator planned past “What if Cage fought an ostrich who wants to eat his face?” Nor do they assume that’s problematic. There’s one-note, there’s thoughtless, there’s zilch-substance, and then there’s the ineptitude displayed on Willy’s grand stage.

All in all, Willy’s Wonderland is a good-time bummer that renders itself uninteresting given an internal backlash against formulating any storytelling semblance. You’d assume “Nic Cage Vs. Willy’s Animatronic, Inclusive Killer Band” an infallible formula for genre entertainment, and yet, Kevin Lewis never assures us a formula exists. From the cinematographer’s blinding addiction to lens flares to narrative tethers that arrive frayed-at-best, this weasel-y attempt at Chuck E Manson is an unceremonious slog despite the insane potential for cult adoration. I guess that’s what happens when your only stage directions to Nicolas Cage are, “look badass, crush soda cans, and rip that chameleon’s head off while black oily goo sprays all over your shiny tile floors.” Too bad even that description sounds more enticing than the daffily repetitive cycle of boredom and blandness that dooms what should be a bonkers birthday bloodbath bonanza.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.