Where traditional animated storytelling leaves the neglect and mistreatment to the crooked god-parent, aspirations of orphanhood fill the Willoughby children’s heads like a deposit of auburn, yarn-like hair.
Adapted from Lois Lowry’s 2008 book of the same name, Netflix CG-animated film The Willoughbys presents a charming, gloomy, and sentimentally charged look at family that proves more becoming of work from Dahl than anything out of Disney.
Well connected to many of history’s greatest achievements, ranging from contributions to science, military and the arts, the Willoughby namesake wears prestige and success as fabulously as they do extravagant moustaches. Stunting this prestigious legacy are Father and Mother Willoughby (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski delivering the pompousness in droves), whose intense feelings of lust – expressed with the discipline of a dog in heat – prevents them from keeping their attention (let alone hands) off of one another.
Fed-up with being neglected, the extent of which is delivered through verbal abuse, food deprivation and punishment-by-isolation, the Willoughby children – eldest Tim (Will Forte), songbird Jane (Alessia Cara) and mushroom-headed twins (you thought the twins in The Shining were creepy…), both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen) – enact a wild plan to abandon their parents and raise themselves.
Valuable lessons accompany the Willoughby children on their path to rebuilding their family, as director Kris Pearn allows themes of family and mistreatment to bite with potent – often delightfully macabre – force. Not to be deprived of joy, Pearn avoids creating a misery-fest out of The Willoughbys, with the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 director ladling oodles of humour and personality to boot.
Where this shines most prevalently is in the casting of Ricky Gervais (also serving as an executive producer) as a shady, fourth-wall-breaking, blue cat who has effectively seen it all when it comes to dysfunctional families. Gervais’ unmistakable drawl and bleak humour, complemented by gorgeously rendered visuals, feeling ripped out of a storybook, providing The Willoughbys with a sense of maturity that rivals anything out of LAIKA. Rounding out the talented voice cast are Maya Rudolph and Terry Crews; their vivacious personalities granting upon the film an infectious charm that’s a testament to their magnetism.
Alas, the thematic ground broken by The Willoughbys in terms of storytelling becomes shoehorned into a bombastic third-act that has become the template for modern animated filmmaking. While not completely devoid of soul, its inclusion shakily forces movement upon a film that had otherwise proven itself highly effective as an entertaining and low-in-stakes affair.
Nevertheless, The Willoughbys gathers newfound thematic weight in a time when self-isolation is testing the resilience, patience and healthiness of relationships everywhere. Riding high on being delightfully morose, though not without a gooey centre, The Willoughbys’ off-beat humour, talented voice cast, and elegant visuals make for a well-meaning romp that is perfect quarantine viewing.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘The Willoughbys’ is available to watch on Netflix right HERE.