Ever sent your old folks on a journey to the death while you sit on the spiked throne in your home, pondering on what to do with your newfound freedom? Maybe you have, but not quite literally. After all, freedom is a luxury we tend to crave for every once in a while. Nonetheless, Netflix’s new animated feature takes this question by that very sense. Let’s take a look.
The Willoughbys is a recent Netflix animated feature which is directed by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2′s Kris Pearn and features the voice talents of Will Forte, Alessia Cara, Maya Rudolph, and Terry Crews. The film is an adaptation of a book that was released in 2008 by author Lois Lowry.
The film begins with a fancy and groovily fuelled narration spoken with the affluence of a true Brit flair. It’s Ricky Gervais. Unmistakeably Ricky. That royal comedic inflexion describes the fictional city the movie is set in, walking down the individuals who populate the streets and dismissing every normal family to finally settle on an out-of-place mansion sandwiched between the high-rises. And then, the narrator walks into frame and… he’s a cat. A blue one that is.
Azure Kitty introduces us to the Willoughbys. Oh, they are a couple living that suite life of affection. They smooch. They pooch. Their quaint mansion reeking with their infallible love for one another. That is… until an infant conveniently pops out from Mother’s womb. (Note the capitalisation for that’s literally how the parental figures are addressed in this movie). Hence, a ridiculous thread is spun.
Mother and Father are egregiously horrible parents. It seems as though they forgot to stay protected in their happy hmm-mmm times and as a result, bore children they did not wish for in the first place. Noting their lineage of reputable men and women (with a glorious splash of facial hair, ladies included), Mother and Father absolutely drive against their heritage. They neglect their offspring, despising them with a certain degree of malice, and refuse to feed them, often shoving them into coal rooms while they enjoy their night bites of fine wine and meatloaf.
On the receiving end of inattention are the main stars, the children. First, there’s Tim voiced by Will Forte, the scrawny firstborn of the Willoughbys who wears a tin hat. He’s the dude who tries to maintain order, seemingly feeling responsible for his siblings in a rational way an elder bro would be. Then, there’s the middle-child, Jane, who’s a fun-loving bespectacled lass, whose penchant for singing is always made known whenever there’s a chance to do so. So, of course, a real-life songbird in the form of Alessia Cara steps in for the part. And the third are the Barnabys… who are fundamentally the two twin girls from The Shining if they were inventors and male. Heck, they even share the same name, so it’s impossible to plainly tell who’s who.
The plot itself is weirdly simple and yet so random in its storytelling. Now, don’t go expecting some Oliver Twist pity party or Hagrid casually showing up at the doorstep to impart to Timothy that he’s a wizard and proceed to kidnap him. Basically, it’s about the Willoughby bunch actually stepping up to send their horrid parents off (to their deaths while on vacation) in order to become orphans and be free of their guardians’ torments. However, the series of unfortunate events that unfold are really pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are knitted together to form a movie. The fast pace of the movie never really lets up as we’re constantly in motion.
It’s as if someone decided to collect every Mentos flavour available, ground it up into a powdered crunch, and subsequently proceeded to ditch the entire stash into a bathtub full of Coke. KABLOOEY. The ensuing reaction would cause condensations of fruity loopy rings of cereal on your curtains and blinds. Yeah, it’s got a whole playroom of colour and imagination because it IS an animated film, and the physical limits of what mere humans can contort are stretched. And that also applies to its narrative.
As with most animated features for kids, there exists a message in there, usually a heartfelt one to ponder about. In the case of The Willoughbys, the central theme is that of family. However, not much time is spent in lingering on certain emotional nodes that could really drive the point of it home. Instead, it’s all cute and immediately juxtaposed with some sadness in the next. I get that it goes against the norm of storytelling, which the movie also gets meta about. However, I’m not going to just forgive a movie because a talking blue cat told me so. Indeed, I felt as though the theme got lost in the outlandish mix and never quite manages to capture its full potential amidst the candy, nanny, and tyranny.
Nevertheless, the animation, character design, and environment work hand in hand to create quite the confection. It’s got that whole stop-motion impression to it, with deliberate jerks and quirks like what you would see in an Aardman or Laika production. Make no mistake, it is fully 3D-animated and there is no wire or clay play involved. However, it’s impossible to miss details like iridescent fleeces dressed up as a rainbow or the sweet tooth of finding wispy pink candy-like clouds. The hair of the kids are distinctly frazzled and fuchsia and made of yarn. So, yes, it’s an odd blend of simplicity within the background and complex object textures which make the overall aesthetic pop.
A recent movie that comes to mind that I can say resembles the Willougbys is The Addams Family. Both movies have similarly quirky character designs thanks to designer Craig Kellman who also worked on Hotel Transylvania and Madagascar. The Addams and Willoughbys both feature mad-scientist-inventor-kiddos, an old-fashioned mansion, and a whole lot of random shenanigans to keep the movie afloat. Of course, we shan’t have little Wednesday and Pugsley attempt to send their old folks to their ends, something that the Willoughbys excel at being even more morbid than the goth brood themselves. But the themes are somewhat similar in the form of outcasts who are trying to find their place in this world.
However, like The Addams Family, it didn’t feel all that unique to me. Maybe it is because these tropes have already been explored a great many times and the lack of originality thereof makes The Willoughbys a bland watch. Even though I was conscious of the satire at play, not all of the jest landed for me and it was pretty difficult to stay focused with the jet-set pace the movie was going for.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t detest The Willoughbys but I am indeed aware that this story just wasn’t for me. I accept that. Perhaps it’s the sensibilities of being an adult and lack of order within the film that just didn’t work for me. As a matter of fact, I would not discourage you from watching it because I’m certain a lot of people would actually enjoy it. It could certainly be great for a younger audience or if you’re just bored and have nothing else to watch. So, if you’re just looking for time to pass with the younglings, especially since we’re all mostly staying at home, this could very well be the fun factor for you and your family.
Sometimes, we what we need is a dash of absurdity to cope with the plain Janes of monotony.
The Willoughbys is currently streaming on Netflix.