Willy's Wonderland is the kind of film that is destined to succumb to people's expectations. With Nicolas Cage leading the dance and a plot/aesthetic that closely references the 80s revival cinema popularized in the past decade, it's a film that is going to draw a very particular crowd with very strict ideas about what it should and shouldn't be. They'll see these expectations met too, but only to a certain degree, as director Kevin Lewis isn't willing to deliver a mere piece of fan service for self-professed cult fans. Though many will leave slightly disappointed, I feel Lewis made something far greater than most will give him credit for.
Nicolas Cage is back. He has been for a couple of years now, with films like Mandy, Color Out of Space and the upcoming Sion Sono directed Prisoners of the Ghostland reinflating his cult prestige. During the first half of the 10s Cage struggled quite severely, often popping up in no-budget films helmed by talentless hacks as a cheap solution to boost the visibility of their projects. But Cage fought back, and he still appears fit enough to bring the goods, though his renewed cult status seems to hinge on him bringing the Cage craze to whatever new film he appears in. It's there in Willy's Wonderland too, but maybe not in the way you'd expect.
Lewis' film is a dedicated effort to create something fun and entertaining. From the nonsensical plot to the over-the-top performances, from the extravagant styling choices to the lingering weirdness that permeates every single scene, Willy's Wonderland is a film that constantly dares you to make a mockery of yourself by taking it too seriously. Everything is played for laughs and bewilderment, odd details are thrown in without any context (like Cage's increasingly sexual pinball antics or his scheduled intake of energy drinks) and style always trump logic.
The plot is there to create potential for prime cult comedy, nothing more. There's a little backstory, about a gang of serial killers running a themed birthday restaurant, offing themselves in a demonic ritual, reincarnating into animatronic puppets and haunting a little backwards town from beyond the grave. They run a tight business with the local police force, but when Cage arrives they finally met their match. As you can see, it's hardly elevated lore, instead it's more an of "anything goes" affair that allows Lewis to throw in whatever idea he sees fit. An approach I dearly appreciate.
Willy's Wonderland's visual aspirations were clearly higher than its budget, luckily Lewis made some smart choices that helped to circumvent at least the bigger pitfalls. Having a bunch of animatronics fighting it out with Cage is asking for trouble, but the manic camera work, tight editing and moody use of color and lighting certainly help to smoothen the rougher patches. There's a slight overreliance of fish-eye lenses and not every shot looks as composed as it could've been, but overall Lewis did a splendid job translating his vision to the big screen.
The soundtrack definitely deserves some praise too. There's a bit of generic rock music that comes with the territory. It's functional and doesn't detract from the film, though it's also quite forgettable. The jolly diner songs on the other hands are simply genius. Some goofy, cheesy and cheap tunes get hammered into your brain and may pop up days later, when you're walking to work, brushing your teeth or are simply enjoying a nice cup of tea. They stick out and give the film that little extra injection of flair, a solid reminder that Lewis left no opportunity unexplored to have as much fun as possible with his film.
Taking Nicolas Cage out of the equation for a moment, the cast isn't all that great. Most of the actors do a decent job, but none are very memorable. Then there are the animatronics (mostly people in costumes), which do feel like they're part of the cast, but don't have much range as actual characters. Their designs are pretty cool though, especially the Tinkerbell rip-off. And there's Cage, who is allowed to rage like in the good old days, only without a single line of dialogue. It's a risky bet, but one that pays off and makes this one of his greatest performances in ages.
This film seems tailored to fans of 80s genre films and cult fare, especially those who enjoyed the overly self-conscious revival of the past decade. And to a point it is, as it borrows part of its aesthetic and its dedication to put cheese/fun above coherence and logic. At the same time, Willy's Wonderland isn't a full-on throwback to the 80s, sporting livelier camera work, atypical deadpan comedy bits (there are traces of Hosking in here) and a more contemporary cast of characters. That puts it in a somewhat awkward position, where those who expect familiarity might be disappointed by some choices that were made, while others still won't understand what the hell this is about. Personally, I feel that's exactly what made this film stand out.
Regardless of which side you end up on, Willy's Wonderland is a film you need to watch if you appreciate the weird, the goofy and the incredulous. It's a film that fully commits to its silly premise and is willing to take it to its extreme. Cage is amazing, the animatronics are awesome, the music is hilarious and the deadpan comedy had me in stitches. I fear for its immediate cult status, even though Lewis appears to solicit for it quite openly, but I'm sure it'll come with time. Pure, unfiltered, kooky and original entertainment, the kind there can never be enough of.