Movie Rated: 8+
Genre: Animated, Comedy
At some point of time (and let the home quarantine not be any kind of factor in this train of thought), we’ve all thought of sending our parents away for good, whether it be for unnecessary punishment or just misdirected angst. What makes the Willoughby children different is that their selfish parents really deserve it. Netflix’s latest animation offering, ‘The Willoughbys’ is based on the children’s book of the same name by Lois Lowry. From online reviews, it seems that the book uses the age-old trope of kids-in-a-misadventure albeit with a morbid sense of humour, and zippy cultural references and fantastical illustrations. While all these fun elements may not always come together in the adaptation, the film is still an energetic burst of colour without being oddly sentimental.
“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin, and it all ends happily ever after, this isn’t the film for you.” This is how The Willoughbys opens, and so begins the predicament of the four neglected Willoughby children - Tim, Jane, and twins Barnaby and Barnaby. When the kids decide to take in an orphan child, it triggers a plan to ‘orphan themselves’ (basically a plan to get rid of their parents through a series of misadventures on a trip around the world). As Mr and Mrs Willoughby narrowly escape death at every turn, the children are taught a lesson in the meaning of being a family with the help of their well-meaning nanny and a cat (who also happens to be the narrator of this story).
The Willoughbys is Netflix’s second foray into animation after last year’s Oscar-nominated Klaus. And while it does not match Klaus’ impressive storytelling, it still has enough imagination with expressive animation and voice acting that you will still find it new enough to amuse your children with. With a bleak sense of humour, it steers clears of the niceties of usual Disney-like fare and starts off as somewhat refreshing. The Willoughbys live in a Stuart Little-esque type ‘little house’ in the middle of an assembly line city, bolstered with a colourful and exotic exterior and interior. The eldest child, Tim, is blatantly aware of his family’s rich legacy or explorers, inventors, poets etc. and how his parents while away their time and are undeserving of the name. It becomes all the more an interesting premise to explore why it is so important for the children to not just ‘feel like’ but also ‘be’ Willoughbys. The twist and the shortcoming, which one presumes to be coming from the source material, is that their world is nothing shy of that from The Addams Family (Mr and Mrs Willoughby madly in love a la Morticia and Gomez), their final adventure is like the travel balloon house of Up, almost everything in the middle is like an extra-sugary dosage of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The mish-mash of ideas taken from similar fiction of the past may seem less referential and more derivative. Due to this, The Willoughbys also feels more vignette than a wholesome experience coming together.
What elevates this film over run-of-the-mill animation is some appealing voice acting, especially from Ricky Gervais who is the cat narrator, Terry Crews, who plays a lovable dad-like Willy Wonka-type to the kids, and comedy extraordinaire Maya Rudolph as Linda, the nanny who shows just the right amount of maternal restraint when taking care of the kids and she does taking on various alter-egos to get them out of trouble and embracing her fun side. As is expected from a feature of this type, the other characters are also voiced by notable names. Another SNL stape Will Forte takes on Tim, while Alessia Cara voices the dreamer Jane Willoughby, especially important as she gets out to belt a Moana-style ballad about going out into the unknown but finding out what is truly important to her (spoiler alert: it’s the family). Stage and comedy stalwarts Martin Short and Jane Krakowski are Mr and Mrs Willoughby, clearly disinterested in taking on their responsibility as parents. They have some of the naughtier humour in the film (cue adults being unhappy). Having said that, Nanny and Commander Melanoff, while the most impressive, don’t always feel like a big part of the narrative.
An incoherent screenplay aside, the execution of The Willoughbys is not particularly elusive. There is an inspired approach to the aesthetic of the film, which almost feels like a mix of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson’s handiwork. There’s an interesting use of different styles of animation, including stop-motion in the middle. The characterisation, lighting and camera-work all seem to suggest that this is the outlier in the middle of everything else which is normal. Some clever wordplay makes its way in the middle. But most of all, there is a moral at the end of the day, which is the point if you were looking for one.
A comparison to the Burtons and the Andersons of the world are expected for they often use kid-friendly techniques to tell stories of immense depth. Somewhere between being a film for and about children and yet having a dark undertone, The Willoughbys seems to forget to be for every audience. For a kid, it’ll do just fine… packing a basic sense of humour and striking visuals. For a brighter viewer, it may be rather unimpressive for the wordplay comes within the middling dialogue and a very scattered screenplay (the un-happy unexpected ending for instance… not so unexpected). For parents, the pacing is so haphazard that the film starts losing its emotional quotient. The Willoughby kids must feel like a family with each other and Nanny Linda. They do, and it may have some effect on your kid, but you may feel underwhelmed.
Music and Other Departments:
Wherever the narrative lacks, the animation makes up, and there are plenty of textures and styles for everyone to be enchanted by. Not sure if the song ‘I Choose’ will qualify as Oscar-bait next year but it’s the kind to get stuck in your head for a while.
Did I Enjoy It?
Sure. Not bad as a one-time watch, sporadically charming and amusing. Doesn’t match the emotional core of a Pixar film but at least it’s distracting.
Do I Recommend It?
If you have kids, sure! Put it on, leave them be. Get some work done in the quarantine while they get another earworm song stuck into their head which isn’t from Frozen 2.