“The Willoughbys” stars Will Forte, Martin Short, Alessia Cara, Jane Krakowski, Ricky Gervais, Maya Rudolph, and Terry Crews. Released on Netflix on April 22, 2020, the film has a group of children plotting to send their selfish parents away.
The film is directed by Kris Pearn, who co-directed “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”, and it is based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry. This week sees the arrival of not one, but two original films from Netflix that are aimed towards two different types of audiences. Today, we’ll be looking at one that is made for families and fans of animation. Netflix has gotten off to a rocky start this month thanks to the likes of “Coffee & Kareem” and “The Main Event”. While those films were trending pretty well on the streaming service, their critical receptions are a different story. Spoiler alert, they’re not good. If you haven’t noticed already, I really did not like “Coffee & Kareem”. As for “The Main Event”, well, the only positive thing about it was that it’s more tolerable than watching a 12-year-old swear all the time. So now we’re down to Netflix movie #3, which is a family movie without the “family” part. I haven’t actually read the book it’s based on, but I was interested in seeing the film anyway because of the people that worked on it and its kooky animation style. Are they enough for me to classify it as another suitable selection for kids? Let’s find out.
Narrated by a talking blue cat (Gervais), the story follows four Willoughby children: Tim (Forte), the eldest sibling who is overprotective, Jane (Cara), a singing enthusiast, and Barnaby (Seán Cullen), the twin boy geniuses who share the same name. They live under the same roof as their parents who are just straight-up boneheads for one reason only: they constantly neglect their own children. Seriously, if they don’t want children to begin with, why did they make love to each other in the first place? Having fed up with their selfishness, the children decided to send their parents away with a fake travel brochure. The plan worked, but their freedom didn’t last very long as they are greeted by Linda (Rudolph), a nanny who is tasked to look after them while their parents are away. To make matters worse, they are being hunted by Orphan Services, a department that attempts to separate them. The children must do the impossible in order to set things right and keep themselves together. This is another film that combines its light-hearted affair with a few darkly comic moments so that parents can easily enjoy the experience with their kids. It’s sort of like it took inspiration from the works of Roald Dahl, which also have this familiar mixture. It’s an unusual comparison, but based on what I saw, it makes sense. Does this mixture work well in this film? Well, almost. It felt like it tried a bit too hard to match what Roald Dahl had done in his books in terms of the tone, but when it comes to everything else, it’s quite enjoyable. The story had a couple of things that could’ve been portrayed better such as the two side characters that I will get to later on and some of its humor. Aside from that, it’s a basic, yet charming, cartoon that’ll make young viewers appreciate the fact that family can come from anywhere, not just biological parents. Even though the main characters were far from memorable, they had enough moments to make themselves tolerable, and the voice cast did very well in illuminating their personalities, especially Alessia Cara in her voice acting debut as Jane and Maya Rudolph as Linda. As for the Willoughby parents, who were voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, oh boy, were they something else. I can understand the direction they’re going with for these characters, but if their goal was to make the parents likable because of their mean-spiritedness, they could’ve done a much better job. Despite a couple of humorous scenes involving them, I couldn’t help but count how many times I thought about grabbing their heads and smash them against the wall because of their despicable actions. I think it was three times. They had the right idea, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I don’t like characters that lack a mixture of likability and mean-spiritedness. The film’s animation was obviously the best part of the experience. It’s completely CGI, but there were a few sequences that almost resemble stop-motion animation. I don’t know, that’s just how I see it. Anyway, I thought the animation style was very impressive. It was stylish, it was colorful, the textures and the lighting were superb, especially the yarn and the cloud effects, and more importantly, it was beautiful to witness on my television. The humor itself was funny enough to keep me engaged, but compared to the other animated films that have well-written humor, this one fell short of being an absolute blast.
Overall, “The Willoughbys” isn’t exactly an animated masterpiece, but there are plenty of merits to be found in this oddly stylish and vibrant family film. Aside from its flawed plot and the unlikable Willoughby parents, the film is another animated hit from Netflix due to its charming voice cast, its heartwarming message about family, and its well-detailed animation. It just goes to show that the streaming service is still a reliable source for the filmmakers to showcase these types of animated films to their audience without the fear of studio interference. To me, “Klaus” is still the perfect example of this situation, but I can still give this one credit for that same reason. If you’re familiar with the source material or if you’re a fan of animation, I think you’re going to like this one.