A charming and offbeat family adventure on Netflix with enough dark ideas and visual inventiveness to make a mark.
Based on Lois Lowry’s novel of the same name, Kris Pearn’s new animated feature The Willoughbys (Netflix) boasts all the hallmarks of typical kid-centric entertainment – warm visuals, a cat, an eccentric family, a storybook sensibility, and enough references to other stories about missing or disinterested parents to feel of a piece with the classics. But don’t judge a book by its cover, especially when it’s a book full of sneakily dark ideas, worrying implications, and a reliably off-kilter worldview that should subtly entertain parents just as much as their nippers.
After Klaus, The Willoughbys is further proof that Netflix has a real stake in a competitive animated film space that, thanks to Into the Spider-Verse and some overdue acknowledgement of Laika’s continuing brilliance, is no longer dominated by the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks triumvirate. These days an animated family film on the Big N isn’t just a throwaway thumbnail filler but a feature with genuine funding, talent, and aspirations – in our current isolated times, we need such things, and this one might be the real rival to the lockdown dominance of Trolls: World Tour.
Sprucing up an old idea with a grim twist and a constantly skewed perspective, Pearn’s film introduces the Willoughby parents Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) as the despicable descendants of a once-proud and heroic family name. They hate children, including their own, Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and the Barnaby twins (Seán Cullen), and do so obviously enough that those kids decide to make orphans of themselves in the hopes of a better life. The concoction of this plan comes to involve a candy magnate played by Terry Crews and is sarcastically narrated by a cat with Ricky Gervais’s voice – all of which seem like elements that wouldn’t necessarily fit in your average kids’ movie.
Through a visually inventive if too-busy-for-its-own-good first half, The Willoughbys races through character introductions and plot points at a manic speed; in its second half it coalesces into a sweeter and more typically emotional mode that is in many ways the kind of thing the film spends a good while mocking. All the frantic slapstick might muddy any coherent point, but I still found the climax satisfying on its own terms. This isn’t a film as big-hearted or expensively-rendered as your average powerhouse release, but in a way that’s only to its credit; the charm and imagination is plenty to get by on. Let’s just hope the premise doesn’t give our kids any ideas.
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