The Willoughbys (2020) Review
A COLORFUL (YET CHOPPY) FAMILY STORY
In 2019, Netflix released Klaus, a Christmas holiday themed animated feature, that was to be the streaming services first attempt into the animated world of cartoon storytelling. Launched in November (a month or so prior Christmas), the film, which was directed by Sergio Pablo, serves as an alternate origin story of Santa Claus different from the historical take of Saint Nicholas of Myra, with a ficitional 19th-century setting and a animated plot revolving around a postman stationed in an remote town to the Far North who befriends a reclusive toymaker. The movie was highly praised by critics and streaming Netflix viewers, with Klaus boasting a heartfelt story, great animated visuals, and some well-deserved voice talents, including actors Jason Schwartzman and J.K. Simmons in the main voice acting roles of Jesper and Klaus. In addition, the movie won / nominated for several awards, including winning seven Annie Awards, winning the Best Animated Film for the British Academy Film Awards, and nominated at the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature (the animated feature from Netflix to be nominated in this category). Now, Netflix and director Kris Pearn present the second Netflix original animated movie with the release of The Willoughbys. Does the sophomore film from the popular streaming service prove to be rousing follow-up success to its processor or is a far cry animated greatness?
While most families have loving, caring, and supporting parents, the Willoughby children, which are made up of Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and the twins named Barnaby A and B (Sean Cullen) sadly don’t as their mother (Jane Krakowski) and father (Martin Short) are neglectful and abusive. In plan to rid their parental problems away, the children decide to orchestrate a dangerous trip for their parents that will leave them orphans. When their parents leave, though, the Willoughbys are left in the care of a Nanny (Maya Rudolph), who Tim doesn’t trust. With the help of Nanny, a blue tabby cat (Ricky Gervais), and candy mogul Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), the Willoughby children will learn what it really means to be a great family.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I’ve stated before, I usually don’t glance at Netflix originals that much. Yes, I’ve looked at a few (and liked them) with such hits like House of Cards, The Crown, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, but those were more original TV series and not so much feature films. Moreover, some Netflix movies have feeling of being “leftovers” that some movie studios rejected from their theatrical line-up and / or “dumped” on Netflix to try and get some money off it. That’s just my opinions. However, there have been a few glimmers of hope in some Netflix movies, such as Extraction and in Klaus, Netflix’s first animated feature. On Klaus, I was quite surprised how much I enjoyed the movie. The story was simply but very sweetly endearing (definitely speaking the holiday theme), the animation was incredibly beautiful (something a tad different from the commonplace CGI visuals), and some likeable voice talents from the cast. In short, Klaus definitely deserves all the praise it has received and is definite modern holiday classic in my book. If you haven’t seeing it yet…. you should definitely check it out. I would highly recommend it.
This, of course, brings me back around to talking about The Willoughbys, Netflix’s second attempt of doing an original animated feature film. Given the successful praise that Klaus received, I was definitely looking forward to seeing the next animated film the streaming service. However, after seeing the film’s trailer, I was a little bit unsure of the film. Sure, it definitely “looked” different from the normal Disney / Pixar animated feature out there and I did like how the animation looked, but I had a feeling that it wasn’t as strong (narrative-wise) and was gonna be a little of a “meh” type movie. However, I decided to give the movie a chance (hoping to surprise me) and sat down and watched The Willoughbys. What did I think of it? Well, it was pretty jumbled and messy. Despite an interesting concept filled with a unique style of animation, voice talents, and dark comedy humor, The Willoughbys is messy animated feature that feels like a mishmash of ideas that are jumbled together. There is some heart to the movie that act as redeeming qualities to animated tale, but those are few and far between.
The Willoughbys is directed by Kris Pearn, whose previous directorial work includes the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Thus, much like Netflix, Pearn makes his sophomore feature film with this movie and, with his background in the animation department for his professional career, he makes for a suitable choice in directing a project like The Willoughbys. Based on the book of the same name by author Lois Lowry, Pearn approaches the material with a sense of child-ish dark humor wit, especially when showcasing the Willoughby children’s selfish and cruel parents. While watching this movie, the overall tone sort of reminded me of watching / reading Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, with a similar tone and fashion that seems quite “in-line” with what Pearn wanted. Thus, if you liked the tale of the Baudelaire children, The Willoughbys is a good substitute distracting; finding Pearn presenting a tale that has a slightly dark tone in a few areas, but is still plenty of animated tomfoolery throughout. In conjunction with that idea, perhaps the best thing that the movie is that the film’s script, which was penned by Pearn as well as Mark Stanleigh and Priscilla Parizeau, presents a good (and timely) thematic message in the film’s story; examining the nature of family. Yes, children’s animated tales can (and usually do) discuss family dynamics in many various tales, but The Willoughbys offers something a little bit out of the norm by presenting narrative scenario of families that are made apart from the established one. Basically….kind of a little bit of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and maybe (just a tad) a bit of the Fast and the Furious series (i.e families that are made rather than being born into). As sad it must be, the parents that the Willoughbys are possibility for some children out in the real world (to some degree) and perhaps The Willoughbys offers a glimmer of hope to those individuals (on a kid’s level of imagination) to toil around with such ideas.
Aesthetically, The Willoughbys definitely stands out for its animation. That’s not to say that its sharp or beautiful, or the absolute best animated, but the overall style of the feature’s “look and feel” is quite unique and somewhat different from the standard CGI creation for animated tales of late. The character designs, though exaggerated within their various physical characteristics, seem quite amusing and definitely have their own personal flavor throughout. As someone who loves animated movies, The Willoughbys dances to the beat of its own drum….and that’s a good thing. Plus, the film’s score, which was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, is definitely “in line” with the animated colorfulness of the feature.
Unfortunately, The Willoughbys struggles to find a solid pace within its progression and often feels like a jumble of smaller episodic mini-movies instead of one cohesive feature film. How so? Well, as I stated above, I didn’t get a chance to read the original book, so I can’t say what was translated / omitted from the source material to the movie. Thus, my criticism stems from how the narrative of the film is presented, which is in more of a chapter-like sequences; finding the Willoughby children face / solving one problem after the other. The motive makes the movie feel very choppy and as an unbalanced feeling throughout its story. It clear what Pearn (and the screenplay writers) wants the movie to be, but it ultimately backfires a bit; jumbling the narrative in way that seems a bit confusing for such a straightforward narrative as well as bogging down the actual main story from time to time. The idea is there, but gets lost immediately and makes the film’s tale quite fractured, uneven, and hard to discern in a few areas. In addition, the movie does have a few bits and pieces that don’t ultimately work, which includes the introduction of several characters and even the ending that seems to drags on longer than what was intended; overstaying its welcoming immediately. All of this makes The Willoughbys a less than memorable animated tale to partake in, which is disappointing considering the themes that it wants to convey. In truth, the movie just feels a bit subpar in almost every category. The story, the comedy, the characters, the main plot, and the overall ebb and flow of it all. To be honest, it probably would’ve worked as a TV series of some kind.
The cast in The Willoughbys is good, but, while the talents involved help bring these characters to life (vocally), the characters themselves are relatively stagnant within their initial setup when presented. I’m not saying its bad, but most of the characters are pretty much straightforward and, while colorfully animated in their personas aren’t that memorable. Of the main principle cast, I would say that the two older Willoughby children (Will and Jane) have the most screen-time and do have the greatest impact (narrative-wise), with actor Will Forte (The Good Boys and Booksmart) bringing a humorous (yet the subtle leader) to the siblings and musician singer Alessia Cara playing the sweet (and lyrical) Jane. Together, both Forte and Cara are perfectly fine their respective roles that do make the most of their characters in the film’s narrative. However, while actor Sean Cullen (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Love Guru) provides the voice for the Barnaby Willoughby twins (Barnaby A and Barnaby B), the characters are rather forgetful; acting more like a minor supporting role in the film. Cullen does certainly make them “creepy” and awkward (as well as the movie does), but they seem unimportant, especially when compared to Tim and Jane Willoughby. There are almost like “window dressing” for the film and that’s it; offering up a few lines here and there.
Of the supporting players, the character of Nanny stands out the best, with actress Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaid and Sisters) bring a certain type of humorous yet sincere warmth to the character of Nanny, the Willoughby children’s temporary guardian. Behind her, actor Martin Short (Innerspace and ¡Three Amigos!) and actress Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal and 30 Rock) give a fun vocal performance as the Willoughbys cold-hearted parents (simply known as “dad’ and “mom” in the movie). In addition, actor Terry Crews (The Expendables and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is amusing as the joyous owner of a candy factory, Commander Melanoff, with Crews projecting his loud “larger than life” sounding voice. Lastly, actor Ricky Gervais (The Invention of Lying and Extras) is perfectly fine as the sarcastic narrator of the film….the cat.
In trying to get rid of their awful parents, the Willoughby children soon found out what “family” really means in the film The Willoughbys. Directed Kris Pearn provides a interesting tale of cartoon-ish antics that’s mixed with a tad of dark humor and heartfelt message of growing up and the nature of family. Unfortunately, despite colorful animation, thematic storytelling, and solid voice acting, the movie does falter in being wholesomely memorable, which is due to the awkward pacing, unwarranted narrative chunks, and lacking character dynamics within its various characters. Personally, I thought that this movie was okay. As I said, it had its moments, so it wasn’t a terrible film to watch. That being said, it’s not the most memorable children’s film to watch and seems like a project that was dumped on Netflix because no wanted it. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “iffy choice / rent it” as it could go either way with people (depending on how a person views it). Kids will probably like it, but parents not so much. In the end, The Willoughbys does make some strides in presentation, but will mostly disappear and fade into the background of the annals of animated children’s entertainment.
3.0 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Rent It)
Released On: April 22nd, 2020
Reviewed On: May 5th, 2020
The Willoughbys is 92 minutes long and is rated PG for rude humor and some thematic elements