I don’t remember the exact moment in cultural history when Chuck E. Cheese transformed from being the coveted location for all of the cool kids to host their big birthday celebrations to the stuff of anxiety-inducing nightmares. Possibly when I was no longer a child. And very likely when, upon reflection, so many socially accepted norms of the ’90s were revealed for the true horror they were.
Either way, this realization + the internet + the film career of Nicolas Cage can only yield one result: a movie where Nic Cage beats the shit out of a series of stand-ins for Chuck E. Cheese and his animatronic band. Don’t pretend you’re surprised.
After agreeing to clean an abandoned building in exchange for car repairs, an unnamed man realizes the animatronic characters stored inside aren’t as innocuous as they appear.
Like Chuck E. Cheese, the once popular destination for children’s entertainment that was truly an exercise in the uncanny valley, Willy’s Wonderland has seen better days. The former hotspot for family friendly birthday fun and subpar pizza (I presume) now sits eerily empty, its once lively animatronic entertainers now merely stand in place, dead-eyed stares peering into the abyss.
Or at least that’s what the good folk of smalltown Hayesville would have you believe. When drifter Nicolas Cage (referred to only as the Janitor) is stranded after running over spikes set by the local sheriff, the owner of the defunct property offers a seemingly straightforward deal: serve as janitor for one night at Willy’s Wonderland in exchange for a repaired vehicle. Surely a quiet and only mildly unsettling evening of cleaning awaits.
However, teenage rebel Liv and her friends could tell you the much darker truth of the place: at night, the animatronics come to life, reanimated by the spirits of cannibalistic serial killers who founded Willy’s Wonderland with evil intent. The serial killers died in a Satanic suicide ritual, merging their spirits and thirst for blood with the animatronic bodies of Willy’s band. Liv and her friends are determined to burn down the cursed building but must save the unsuspecting janitor first.
As we know before the first well-choreographed and surprisingly tense fight between the Janitor and a human-sized animatronic puppet, the cleaner is not your everyday wanderer. I mean, he’s played by Nic Cage. The Janitor proves he’s more than capable of holding his own against the animatronic creatures, especially as he’s armed with a case of a Red Bull-like concoction known only as Punch. It’s not particularly clear why, but periodically the Janitor must recharge by chugging his beverage of choice and playing pinball.
When Liv and her friends arrive at Willy’s Wonderland to warn the Janitor, he ignores their advice. In fact, he says absolutely nothing, which is one of this film’s techniques (okay, gimmicks). As the Janitor learns more about the nature of Willy’s Wonderland and its relationship with the town, Liv’s friends become victims of the animatronic serial killers, and the sheriff finally intervenes. But is it to help end Willy’s reign of terror…or to pursue an ulterior motive?
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Does this film feature close-ups of unsettlingly creepy animatronic characters in violent combat with Nicolas Cage, who frequently makes grunts of fury and pain but has no lines of spoken dialogue? Of course. Of course it does. And for that alone, this is an entertaining watch. I’m quite fond of the extended pinball playing/dance break scene featured as well.
However, the plot of this film and its logic doesn’t get much beyond a filmmaker deciding that they wanted to see Nicolas Cage fight Chuck E. Cheese. And to make that the entire point of this movie.
I find this film left me with more questions than answers primarily because no one could be bothered to think things through and come up with plausible explanations. At several points throughout the film, I was expecting some greater understanding of the Janitor and his fighting abilities. He is almost superpowered by the energy drink he constantly consumes…is there supposed to be something literally magical about it? Is it just for laughs? Is this some kind of lazy Popeye reference?
The core issue is that the logic of the small town basically appeasing Willy the animatronic serial killer is so implausible. I kind of follow the way he’s transformed into a vengeful god in the minds of the local residents, but I would have liked this to have been expanded further to make more sense. It feels like the shift from trying to destroy Willy’s Wonderland to offering human sacrifice on a regular basis is abrupt and a little extreme. The townspeople here kind of give the vibe of happily killing outsiders either way.
Unsurprisingly, the scenes with Nicolas Cage in extended fight sequences are so fun to watch. However, the poorly written local characters and teens get a lot of screen time that feels like a waste. Liv weirdly has almost no reaction to her friends being systematically murdered beyond looking a little upset. And there are quite a few moments where we are meant to believe there’s some kind of understanding or connection between Liv and the Janitor. I was expecting they’d have a real life connection and would have settled for even the predictable dude who left town years ago without knowing he had a daughter trope. But we never get any explanation for the connection between these characters, nor do we ever know much about them individually.
Also, this is a minor issue, but a massive building like Willy’s Wonderland having only one entrance/exit feels like a major fire code violation.