Synopsis – Convinced they’d be better off raising themselves, the Willoughby children hatch a sneaky plan to send their selfish parents on vacation. The siblings then embark on their own high-flying adventure to find the true meaning of family.
My Take – With every major studio in Hollywood owning an animation wing, the animated film market has become quite clustered for some time now, with each one delightfully pocketing themselves with their own respective franchises. However, after gaining wide spread critical claim for their film Klaus (2019), which also procured two Oscar nominations, Netflix is back again with a new release, to continue their efforts to push for more mainstream recognition, especially in the family viewing department.
Pairing up with Bron Studios (2019’s The Addams Family), to adapt the book of the same name by author Lois Lowry (The Giver), this new animated film makes up as a parody of old fashioned classic children’s stories where terrible things happen to children, babies are abandoned, candy is seen as emotional refuge and nannies look after the kids. Yet somehow, a happy ending and a lesson or two always emerge from the chaos, like how a family doesn’t always have to be biological.
Though the film, directed and co-written by Kris Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), may seem inspired by A Series of Unfortunate Events and like a twisted version of Mary Poppins, it manages to successfully find its own tone. Coupled with a sophisticated visual animation aesthetic the film makes full use of its medium to take a familiar setup and make it fresh and moving, resulting in an endearing good experience.
Yes, it by no means is the best animated offering out there right now, but it’s pretty close to the top of the pack in a lot of ways, especially considering the releases we had in the last two years. However, its quality may also depend heavily on exactly what you’re looking in an animated film. Here, I can see how some families may find trouble in the themes, which may seem too real for a children’s story, as it mixes humor, fun and adventure with a little bit of the dark side of the real world.
Nevertheless, despite its obvious weirdness, I would consider it as a part of Netflix’s animation win streak.
Narrated by a talking blue tabby cat (voiced by Ricky Gervais), the story follows Tim (voiced by Will Forte), Jane (voiced by Alessia Cara) and a pair of twins, both known as Barnaby (voiced by Seán Cullen), who make for the youngest lot of the centuries old Willoughby family. Living in the family mansion and denied childish wants like food, clothes, and love, by their hopelessly selfish parents Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby (voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski), the four red-headed kids have somewhat managed to survive on their own, despite their young age.
While Tim continues to hold the Willoughby family heritage in great esteem, going as far as talking to portraits of his ancestors for advice on how to handle his parents and bring glory back to the family name, his sister, Jane, on the other hand, feels much less beholden, and instead seeks an environment where she is loved and supported for who she is.
Realizing that life might be better as orphans, the siblings manage to successfully trick their parents into going on a dangerous world-wide vacation in an attempt to bump them off from their lives, however, what they never contemplated was the arrival of a nanny, Linda (voiced by Maya Rudolph). While she manages to bring the household back to stability by using her eccentric techniques as well as loving nature, Tom continues to see her with distrust and as an obstacle to returning the Willoughby house back to its historical success.
Here, director Kris Pearn energizes the story with characters that look like they’re shaped out of bubble gum; Giddy and vibrant, and puts them in constant motion. It’s frenetic and fun, even when the kids are plotting to kill their parents. The film works as a mix and match from a variety of sources, with a taste of Roald Dahl, a hint of A Series of Unfortunate Events, with a dash of Mary Poppins, all spun together to form a delightfully dark story about finding the true value of family.
The beauty of this film stems from how it does not give a clear answer on what a perfect family is. For example, under the loving circumstantial guardianship of the nanny, one misunderstanding broke the trust between them. However, in a heavily regimented and sterile environment under Child Protective Services, life was not as enjoyable, and when push came to shove and the siblings decided to save their traveling parents to prove they weren’t orphans, the film again remained ambiguous on whether staying together was worth the cost of having terrible parents.
These heavy ideas don’t take away from the family-friendliness of the film, as they are expertly shrouded in a veil of whimsical humor and childish fun. As the children define their own story, they make decisions based on what their favorite book characters would do, which offers some hilarious moments.
By the time the film’s climax rolls around, it’s pretty clear that it won’t unfold the way the kids want it to. The animation decisions in the film heighten the message of redefining family, connecting the medium directly to the story line. This is a film where the creators delight in the fact that they’re working in animation, not one where marketing tried to cover up the medium. The storybook-like message about finding family comes through even more fully when the whole world feels like a cozy picture book.
Visually, the film is stunning. The stylized CG is reminiscent of stop-motion films. The character designs and backgrounds look like they were put together out of craft materials. The way the characters and camera move evokes the slightly choppier feel of stop-motion animation, with frames pulled out to achieve the effect. The film renders an off-kilter world, perfect for an exaggerated storybook-inspired tale.
The family is rendered as spindly and almost Tim-Burton-creepy, while Maya Rudolph’s Nanny is basically stylized like a giant heart, representing the love and fullness she’s bringing into the kids’ lives. The voice cast is also absolutely phenomenal.
There’s strong voice work from Will Forte, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short and Maya Rudolph. Sean Cullen as Barnaby A & B is hilarious, while Alessia Cara literally brought tears to my eyes with her singing voice. And don’t even get me started with Terry Crews as Commander Melanoff and Ricky Gervais as The Cat, as they had me cracking up with almost every single line. On the whole, ‘The Willoughbys’ is a heartwarming and hilarious animated film that takes a progressive look at the true meaning of family.
Directed – Kris Pearn
Rated – PG
Run Time – 90 minutes