The Willoughbys (MOVIE REVIEW)
Runtime: 92 Minutes
Director: Kris Pearn
Cast: Will Forte, Martin Short, Alessia Cara, Maya Rudolph, Ricky Gervais
Netflix has in recent years become a major outlet for many creators to have their voices be reached to a wider audience than ever before. Particularly in the last year when the company started to put more emphasis on creating animated feature films to try and compete in that arena, The Willoughbys was one of the first films announced as part of their new strategy. Directed by Kris Pearn who directed Sony Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and based on the children’s book of the same name, this new movie tries to find a unique way to turn the definition of a family movie on its head by making the story follow possibly the most dysfunctional and utterly horrible family around. But is there more to this outside of the premise, or is this just another generic animated movie to leave on the wayside.
The Willoughbys follows the titular family, who are possibly the most broken pair around mainly due to the parents focusing more of their love for each other than attending to their own kids, Tim, Jane and the Barnaby's. When the kids decide that they have had enough of their cruel and neglectful parents, they hatch a plot to get rid of them by fabricating a worldwide expedition for them in the hopes they might die, so that they can live free lives as happy orphans. But when their parents leave behind a low-paying nanny to look after them while they are away, the kids are shown displays of affection for the first time as they come to realise how strong of a familial unit they always were.
Right from the outset, given that this is based on a children’s book, one of the best qualities to The Willoughbys is how it attempts to tell this relatively simple story to its audiences. Right from the start, it’s hilariously narrated by Ricky Gervais as a dry and cynical tabby cat who tells this unique tale from his own perspective and from that moment onward, the film takes that initial sense of simplicity and uses it to it’s advantage. For children, the film will find its footing for them thanks to focusing on these kids and their rebellious nature and find relatability in that occasional feeling of imprisonment and restraint from living with their parents. But with that idea in mind, where the film could have told a fairly standard “be careful what you wish for” storyline where the kids just have to learn to accept their parents and the fact that their family is flawed but still respect what they have, the film strangely enough decides to turn that idea on its head. The parents in this film, voiced evilly by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski are a genuinely despicable pair, who have such little love for their own children that it could legitimately be seen as child abuse. So when the children begin to learn through Maya Rudolph’s Nanny that there is indeed a way they can feel truly loved, what comes from it is a surprisingly sweet story. In many ways, it is very much kind of a love letter to non-biological families. It’s very much about how families can be whoever you choose them to be, and it focuses on a more universal kind of love rather than the kind you get from a standard familial love. It’s something that is guaranteed to tug on some people’s heartstrings, especially those from foster/adopted families, and the way the film tackles this subject matter by basically altering audience expectations is something that feels particularly beneficial for this film.
It doesn’t mean that film is perfect however; there are some structural issues along with some flimsy execution from time to time. While the unique use of a narrator works very well to tell this story from a similar perspective to how the book was told, it does take a bit of a mild hit on the general pacing, particularly for the first half of the story. Though most of the story beats are done fine enough, for the most part, the opening of the film feels a little too empty and slow to make the film feel like an immediate hook, mainly because none of the main characters to start out are particularly likeable. Tim, the eldest son, has arguably the biggest character arc in the film, and while it is amazing to see him grow and learn a lot on this journey, it is a bit hard to like him, even when we are given some reason to sympathise for him because of their awful parents. Jane and the Barnaby twins are delightfully funny and quirky as hell throughout, but it does take a while for this story to take off, even despite some of the predictable beats that come with most animated kids films. But once the gears get into full swing and more of the film’s central themes start to show thanks to the Nanny and some other recurring characters like a massive Candy Factory owner played by Terry Crews, the film becomes a thankfully enjoyable and heartwarming watch. And because the film has a more youthful approach to its narrative, it thankfully doesn’t take itself TOO seriously, and neither is any of the comedy too overbearing or obnoxious like a lot of kids movies are nowadays.
Another aspect about the film that should be touched upon as well is the incredible animation from Bron Studios. From the character designs, to the hyper-detailed production design, The Willoughbys is a feast for the eyes. Clearly taking inspiration from the more experimental approaches to CGI Animation as seen in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and even other Children’s Book adaptations like Captain Underpants and The Peanuts Movie, the film translates the stylised backgrounds of the source material and blends it with surreally simple character designs to make it look like something straight out of a pop-up book. The characters are detailed to fairly exaggerated proportions to display much of their character’s personalities in great detail and while something like this from a technical level may look great on its own, it’s how it fits snugly with the story that makes it stand out better than most other animated films. It’s legitimately amazing how in this world, there is more experimentation than ever before with the use of CGI, and this film only helps to bring these concepts and ideas into the limelight.
While The Willoughbys may not have the best pacing or general story execution as seen in other films, it’s really in its core themes and animation where the project really finds its wings and sours. It’s focus on dysfunctional families, mixed with a loving message of the importance of familial love mixed with adoptive sensibilities is where the film finds its true heart and soul, and when mixed with the creative and truly unique animation style that incorporates much of the charm of a children’s book come to life, it all comes together rather well despite some shortcomings. This is a very solid family movie for the current times we are living in right now, and while it may be more kid-centric because of the film’s source material and general point of view, there is also plenty of good comedy and nice artistry that will keep adults satisfied too.
FINAL RATING: 7/10 (GOOD)
The heartfelt story at its core.
The wonderfully imaginative and unique animation style.
Great visual gags and comedy that isn’t overbearing.
Ricky Gervais’ funny narration as a cat.
The film’s 1st Act feels slow and a little underwhelming.
Might feel a bit more geared toward kids.
A bit too predictable given the unconventional story.