Review: Willy’s Wonderland (2021) *****

Willy’s Wonderland is the best Five Night’s at Freddy’s movie the way that Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie.

Watching Willy’s Wonderland, there’s no period where you will think “this is a good movie,” but you will think “this movie is gloriously stupid” at least twenty times, and Willy’s Wonderland is very satisfied to be stupid.

Surely Nicolas Cage was onboarded with the pitch, “You don’t have to learn a single line and we’ll just tell you what to punch and the shoot will be over in a week.” This was a great idea because the dialogue for other characters is overlong and poorly written. Staring is the best screenwriting we get.

Early in the movie, Nicolas Cage slams his first energy drink and then stands in place beside his car, staring at nothing for eight hours as the sun moves his shadow from the left side of his body to the right side of his body.

In fact, Nicolas Cage does two things in Willy’s Wonderland: absolutely destroy animatronics (and a pinball game), and stare.

You can tell when you meet the young lady who will be his best friend when they have a stare-off. He likes the way she stares so much, he adopts her so that they can stare together.

I have never felt so deeply satisfied by a movie so eagerly diving feet-first into its gonzo concept of “Nicolas Cage is the night guard in FNAF and he’s ready for it,” or perhaps, “Liam Neeson from Taken gets hired as the FNAF night guard, played by Nicolas Cage.”

Actually, the Wikipedia article informed me that Willy’s Wonderland was inspired by one of my recent super-favorites, Mandy (2018). Which means the actual best way to describe it is, “The part of Mandy where Nicolas Cage kills his way through a murder cult, except the murder cult is also FNAF animatronics, and there’s no Andrea Riseborough.”

The amount that I enjoyed this makes me wonder if comedy-horror is actually my favorite genre, maybe?


Amusingly, I can actually come at Willy’s Wonderland with one of my anti-capitalist labor-focused reviews, too.

Five Nights at Freddy’s has plenty to say about capitalism, intentionally or otherwise. I am not actually sure how cognizant of any labor messaging the game may be when it’s creator is an American conservative, who are typically opposed to labor rights; maybe the IP is actually fine with sacrificing employees on the altar of capital.

In the first game, you’re playing a night guard (actually it might be a name–The Night Guard?) who has to watch over a pizzeria like Chuck E. Cheese. The animatronics come to life and try to kill you. I am a mother of kids who like FNAF, particularly the older of the two, so my exposure to it has been quite persistent over the years but I very seldom play. It’s a puzzle-reaction game with jump scares if you fail to respond to the sensory input with the correct action, basically. No thanks, not for me.

But I think you can infer a lot about America’s work environment that a realistic story is “guy gets night job with zero training and everyone knows the job will kill him, then it does.”

What makes Willy’s Wonderland especially charming for me is that Nicolas Cage’s character (here, called The Janitor) is an extremely cognizant worker bee with a very healthy work/life balance.

It could be said that any job you get is going to demand something horrible of you. Many service industry jobs will happily destroy you, though often more slowly, by grinding down your back, your knees, your shoulders, using repetitive labor and heavy lifting. You may be denied timely bathroom breaks. Factory workers may find themselves blown to pieces or crushed when safety standards are not met. Retail workers will get underpaid jobs in dangerous parts of town where they are expected to work minutes after a robbery, assuming they survive–their lives on the line for capital.

So what’s the big difference between that and a building full of animatronics actively trying to kill you? Well, at least the animatronics are faster, and they have some fun music.

Nicolas Cage gives the impression of a man who has done a *lot* of crappy jobs in his life, and this is just one more. He literally could not care less about anything outside of what he agreed to do. (His boss in this is Tex Macadoo. I have to say that because it’s my new favorite name.)

When the timer goes off indicating he needs a break, he takes a break, even if it means leaving animatronics to murder teenagers. But also he doesn’t try to escape the pizzeria before his work is done. The doors were chained shut, but that’s not what’s keeping him inside. The Janitor agreed to clean and he’s going to do his job, darnit.

Truly, an icon of labor meeting quota.


If I wanted to think too much about it, I think there is an argument to be made that The Janitor is not simply a man willing to do whatever dirty job is placed on his shoulders: there is implicit characterization at multiple points. The way he regards the Willy’s pinball machine seems reverent. Either he’s got a previous relationship with this specific machine, or he really likes arcade games. Definitely there’s something nostalgic going on inside his head.

The way that The Janitor stares at icons of Willy specifically suggests either 1) foreshadowing the ultimate conflict with Willy, or 2) he was, perhaps, one of the child fans hurt by Willy’s, now grown up and looking for revenge.

I don’t think it’s the first one because The Janitor and Willy don’t actually have an especially remarkable showdown. It’s still possible simply because The Janitor stares at *everything.*

But the second theory makes more sense. It could explains why he isn’t surprised by any of this, and why he goes from zero to sixty on the intensity of his violence as soon as an animatronic activates. There is a History. Perhaps then, too, we can expect he acquired the Young Staring Heroine as part of his crew (?) family (?) copilot (?) out of a sense of shared trauma and responsibility.

If The Janitor does have a history, then he was fully expecting his car to get stopped in that town. He was expecting to get looped into the trap and fight these bad boys. He’s already headed out with the full intention of getting this dirty job done, which is a fun thought.

I feel no real attachment to this theory, but I put it forward because I think it’s *fun* how a movie without any dialogue for its main character (and bad dialogue for the other characters) can manage to create fertile ground for reading backstory and deeper lore behind what it presents. Acting, directing, and editing did a lot of narrative work here.

Nicolas Cage is actually a really committed actor wherever he shows up, for better or worse, and I’m gonna tell you this is one of the better ones.

I’m so delighted that there’s a version of Mandy I can share with my young teenager.

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