The Willoughbys is a Netflix Original animated film from Bron Animation, directed by Kris Pearn and based on the Louis Lowry novel of the same name. The movie follows the Willoughby children, Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and the twins Barnaby ( Seán Cullen) as they plot to orphan themselves away from their terrible, self-absorbed, blatantly abusive parents (Martin Short, Jane Krakowski). The plan goes awry though when a Nanny (Maya Rudolph) is hired to take care of the kids I’m their parents’ absence.
For starters, the animation style is just right for this movie. The occasional mixed-medium is used to bring out the comedy while the odd body proportions and the yarn-like quality to the Willoughbys’ hair brings out the weird vibe the family is meant to elicit. But, The Willoughbys also has a very Illumination Studios style to it, which I do not like very much. The character models for all of the Willoughbys just have this veneer to them I don’t like in animation. And for some reason, the movement just feels extra smooth in a way that doesn’t match my expectations for this style of animation. It’s technically impressive, just impossible to not judge it for how similar it feels to watching Despicable Me, especially considering the similarities in the movies’ plots.
Aside the animation style, I quite love each of the four Willoughby children. Tim is a little doofus molded by his miserable parents to uphold every toxic masculinity trait in the book while being oblivious to how his parents abuse him. But underneath all of that, he’s an adorable kid who just needs so love in his life. Jane is great because she gets to be both the emotional anchor and the brains of the family. Most girls like her in kids’ movies with male leads only ever get to be one or the other to an exaggerated degree. I love it for her that she gets to be a whole person. The Barnabys, twins with the same name because their parents truly suck, are initially described as creepy, but I think they fall perfectly between creepy and endearingly funny and sweet. Had they just been creepy, I think the characters would have fallen flat and not been nearly as likable and funny.
The kids definitely are what makes this movie. Their parents, excessive touchiness, creepiness, and neglect are played for laughs when not played for exposition, but I just find them gross and uncomfortable to the point of hating whenever they were on screen. I don’t know if this was the intention, but the dad is especially gross with the noises he makes and the animation that goes with them. Another character disappointment is baby Ruth. The Willoughbys find her on their porch at the beginning of the movie and unfortunately, as cute as she is, she really only ever feels like a plot device and not a character.
The worst of all though is the cat. The movie is narrated by Ricky Gervais who plays a fourth-wall-breaking cat that occasionally interjects to tell the viewer something while other times intervenes in the Plot of the movie. I brushed aside my personal disdain for Gervais at first because I thought the narrative divide was creative and occasionally funny. By the end though, the cat had quite overstayed its welcome. It basically devolved into being as abrasive and obnoxious as the actor who plays it and the way the cat became involved in the plot just to excuse the unnecessary number of times the narrator jumped in during the final act left me soured towards him.
Where the movie does shine though is in the good role models the Willoughbys do get to build. The Nanny is not only played superbly by Rudolph but she is also just a great character who is never caricatured in the ways other movies easily could have. She’s just simply a good role model and character. Dispute his much smaller role in the movie overall, Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews) is even better. First of all, the character is just great. He’s a candy factory owner with an enormous body and tiny head who, in any other movie, would probably have been the cold-hearted villain. But from the first time we meet him after adopting Ruth, he immediately dismantled every toxic masculine trait that Tim was ever taught by his father. Which is perfect, since he’s played by one of the least toxic men in television.
The themes in this movie are all poignant and well made. The biggest theme is about family and the kids definitely learn that well over the course of coming to realize they don’t have to accept their parents’ terribleness and that they can choose who to love as their family. I also greatly appreciate Tim’s journey away from the toxic masculinities he is bathed in from birth. Even though his father ignored him forever, Tim basically communes with the paintings of his forefathers and has built a myth of masculinity and make responsibility around what it means to provide for a family, how to treat children, and the importance of a man excellent mustache. With the help of his siblings, the Nanny, and the Commander, he eventually unlearns these problematic assumptions.
The very best part of this journey is that ultimately, Tim ends up being wrong and failing. He thinks his parents are worth saving and might change their hearts. He’s utterly wrong of course, which itself is a great lesson about not needing to forgive abusive parents and being allowed to fail and learn from it. But it also leaves open the opportunity for Jane to end up as the hero. It’s so rare in movies that the girl gets to be the hero without the boy stepping in to help her, join her, save her, and so on. She just gets to be the one who is the hero all by herself. Sure, the Nanny and Commander come to the final rescue, but that’s more of a falling action than the climax by that point.
I would also be remiss not to mention the excellent score in The Willoughbys by Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s quite well done and Jane’s songs and motif throughout the movie never get old despite being a simple melody. I also was a bit put off through the movie by the above-slapstick level of violence throughout the film. It just felt excessive and unnecessarily graphic at times.
The Willoughbys is a decent movie with endearing characters and excellent messages. The narration gets annoying after a while and the animation, while technically well done only the non-Willoughby characters feel good to look at. It’s not amazing, but certainly worth a go for how endearing and wholesome most of the characters are.
The Willoughbys is available now on Netflix.
The Willoughbys is a decent movie with endearing characters and excellent messages. The narration gets annoying after a while and the animation, while technically well done only the non-Willoughby characters feel good to look at. Â Itâ€™s not amazing, but certainly worth a go for how endearing and wholesome most of the characters are.
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