Will Forte as Tim Willoughby
Martin Short as Mr. Willoughby
Alessia Cara as Jane Willoughby
Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Willoughby
Ricky Gervais as The Cat
Maya Rudolph as Nanny
Seán Cullen as the Barnabys
Terry Crews as Commander Melanoff
Co-written by Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh & Directed by Pearn
The Willoughbys Review:
Kids have always wondered life would be like without their parents, be it someone as loving and caring as Bob and Linda of Bob’s Burgers or as despicable and uncaring as pseudo-parental figures such as Count Olaf in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Sometimes, stories concerning the latter are to help the kids in focus realize how much their parents actually care or bring them to a more loving environment, and Netflix’s The Willoughbys feels like a genuinely unique attempt to subvert these story expectations.
Based on Lois Lowry’s 2008 novel of the same name, the film focuses on the Willoughby children, eldest Tim, sole daughter Jane, and twins Barnaby and Barnaby as they live with their selfish and uncaring parents who seemingly pretend as though they don’t exist. Convinced they’d be better off raising themselves, they hatch a plan to send their parents on a vacation in which they should perish in some dangerous exotic locations but find their plans uprooted when an infant is dropped on their doorstep and the parents hire a nanny to watch over them. The Willoughbys set off on an adventure to find a better home for themselves and the baby while also searching for the true meaning of family along the way.
The plot feels like a generally intelligent subversion of typical family animated hijinks, with the children actually being justified in their distaste for their parents as the two seem wholly unfit to raise a kid, let alone four, and sees the group find what feels like a previously-unexplored possibility for elimination. Most family-friendly films featuring such a storyline would see the kids attempt to have their parents arrested or run away to live in a new home, but few pull out the Jigsaw playbook and find ways to murder their parents without doing it themselves and rather than judge the Willoughby children, we actually learn to sympathize with their plight.
The children themselves do feel like characters we’ve all seen before, the eldest brother too young to be the man of the family but believes he’s ready, the sister who just wants a happier life than the one she has in which she can have fun and sing and the twins who may be creepy but really only want love. But despite this, the script finds ways to try and break these conventions and keep them feeling more original than most other entries into the genre.
The two elements the film shines most are in its stunning animation from British Columbia-based BRON and the script’s dark-yet-hysterical tone not generally seen in the genre. Few films made for kids are willing to lean into the darker corners of the human experience, including death or the sadness that can come from being an orphan, and yet The Willoughbys is not only willing to touch upon these subjects but also willing to find a way to do so with heart and humor. While much of the film features brighter comedy spawning from the blunders of the children and infant Ruth, a lot of its darker (and frankly funnier) edges come from the fourth-wall-breaking Cat voiced by a master in dark comedy, Ricky Gervais. His sharp but relaxed delivery of his lines as the on-screen narrator of the story feels very reminiscent of Keith David’s portrayal of the mysterious black cat in 2009’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, but rather than feel like a straight rip-off, it feels like Gervais brings his own unique take on the similar role.
BRON Studios’ work in animating the film also feels reminiscent of the production studio behind Coraline, Laika, but though the former doesn’t use stop-motion techniques in the same fashion as the latter, they find a way to make the world of the Willoughbys come to life in a breathtakingly real way. From the titular family’s hair looking as though it was made of yarn — and is even used as such in a recurring joke throughout — to clouds and smoke trails looking like balled up pieces of twine, it’s a computer-generated world that feels more like it was made from the arts and craft in an elementary school in the most beautiful of ways.
While Gervais shines as The Cat, the rest of the cast are also stupendous in their various roles, with Alessia Cara delivering a stellar film debut role as the singing sister, finding a way to balance her gorgeous singing voice with the upbeat and cheery speaking personality of Jane as well. In an atypically low-key role for the real-life teddy bear, Terry Crews is a delight as the shy-yet-joyous candy maker Commander Melanoff, while Maya Rudolph is as energetic and glorious as always in the role of the loving Nanny Linda.
Overall, The Willoughbys loses its stride in moments and has a few unfortunate cliches, but thanks to mostly stellar writing, a refreshingly darker sense of humor, a wonderful voice cast and gorgeous animation, the film shines above most of the animated genre efforts of recent history and is sure to thrill younger audiences and their older family members alike.
The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix!