Film Review: The Willoughbys
Director: Kris Pearn
Streaming on Netflix: 04.22
Right now, you are probably either looking for anything you can find that’s animated to keep your kids entertained, or, you are so sick of animated shows streaming 24/7 that you feel like taking an axe to the television. Because of this, The Willoughbys will either be recognized as a welcomed, family-friendly treat or largely ignored by adults. The latter would really be a shame, because it’s easily one of the most enjoyable films of the year so far, even if that is a relatively low bar at this point in time.
The Willoughby family is a distinguished old-money clan with a proud history of upstanding and ambitious people with big, bushy mustaches (even the women). But the current big leaf on the family tree is a shallow fool married to an equally shallow woman—voiced by the deliciously campy Martin Short and Jane Krakowski. The couple are so nauseatingly in love with each other that they can’t be bothered to care about anything, including their four children: Tim (Will Forte) the eldest and neurotic de-facto leader of the brood who dreams of being like the great Willoughbys of old; Jane (Alessia Cara), the starry-eyed dreamer, and the creepy twins, both named Barnaby (and voiced by Seán Cullen).
Mom and Dad are such loathsome and apathetic parents (“We’ve tried everything. Ignoring them, neglecting them, never playing with them … “) that their children decide they would be better off as orphans raising themselves. They concoct a plan to make it happen, but of course, nothing is ever easy in this kind of story.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Lois Lowry (The Giver), and it’s very much a parody of “old fashioned” children’s books. It plays quite specifically like a spoof of the works of Roald Dahl, complete with the mean and foolish grown ups, a cast of quirky characters (including a mad candy-maker) and a darkly whimsical tone. But it’s not the kind of parody that slams you with in-jokes and pop culture references, preferring to stand on its own merits. The film isn’t so much a comedy that knocks you over with constant belly laughs as it does consistently entertain you with its wacky charm, stylish animation and endearing characters.
The Willoughbys is genuinely funny, and Ricky Gervais gets plenty of chuckles as the Lemony Snicket-esque narrator, an anthropomorphic cat. But the most lovable performances come from Forte, Cara, Cullen and Maya Rudolph as the children’s new nanny. Forte stands out above the rest—the utterly goofy Tim is a truly unique protagonist and a major factor in making the movie click. Director Kris Pearn finds just the right balance of subversiveness and sentiment, combining them with splendid visuals to make for a hugely satisfying and diverting family film that only gets better on repeat viewing. The Willoughbys has all of the right ingredients to become a minor classic. –Patrick Gibbs