‘The Willoughbys’ is inconsistent tonally and garishly animated, but its message about family is comforting.
Kernel Rating: 3 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 90 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 8+. ‘The Willoughbys’ follows four children whose negligent and uncaring parents abuse and ignore them; in return, the children decide to orphan themselves to get rid of their parents. Their plans include sending their parents on a danger-filled vacation, including hiking up a volcano and a mountain, nearly being burnt alive, nearly being frozen to death, and various other threatening situations; the film ends by implying in two separate scenes that the parents have died. The children are kept in a dungeon-like setting and rarely fed, considering eating moldy cheese and a dead mouse; they sometimes fight with each other and with other adult figures; and there are some insults, bathroom humor, and suggestive phrases, like “Mother’s balls.” Parents kiss, flirt, and otherwise engage in a romantic relationship that ignores their children. “Orphan Services” are portrayed as uncaring, cruel agents of bureaucracy who kidnap and mistreat children, and the film’s adoption storyline in that detail seems insensitive.
By Roxana Hadadi
Sharing more than a little DNA with the works of Roald Dahl, the children’s book “The Willoughbys” by Lois Lowry told the story of a scrappy, persistent, slightly weird group of siblings thoroughly let down by their selfish and negligent parents. The Netflix film adaptation strikes a different tone from Lowry’s text, with a focus on some elements that feel pieced together from other children’s films. A young girl who likes to sing; devious twins who are engineering geniuses; a narrating cat. The familiarity of these pieces, which feel pulled from other films like “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me,” might make the story more palatable for younger viewers, but “The Willoughbys” is sometimes particularly grueling in its lack of originality.
“The Willoughbys” focuses on the family of the same name, who are not “happy,” “supportive,” or “functional,” says the film’s narrator, a blue tabby cat (voiced, consistently irritatingly, by British actor Ricky Gervais). Instead, the parents, Father (voiced by Martin Short) and Mother (voiced by Jane Krakowski), are considered disappointments compared with their preceding relatives, who were a number of esteemed professionals. But Father and Mother spend all day cooped inside their decaying mansion, cooing at each other, kissing, and harvesting Father’s specially textured mustache hair for Mother’s knitting purposes, rather than spending time with any of their four children: eldest Tim (voiced by Will Forte), sole daughter Jane (voiced by Alessia Cara), and youngest boys and twins, both named Barnaby (voiced by Seán Cullen).
The children—essentially abandoned, often hungry, and aware that their parents are quite terrible—realize that Father and Mother will never be the guardians they desire or deserve. So they decide to make up a fake travel brochure to send them on a “no-children-allowed” vacation around the world to increasingly dangerous locations. They’re overjoyed to succeed and get their parents out of the house—unaware that Father hires a nanny, Linda (Maya Rudolph), to care for the children. Tim is convinced that Linda will be just as selfish as their parents, but is shocked to learn that she truly cares for the children. So much that she accompanies the foursome to a candy factory at the edge of town, where an orphan who had been dropped off at the Willoughbys’ doorstep now lives with the reclusive but friendly candy maker Commander Melanoff (voiced by Terry Crews).
Together, Linda, Commander Melanoff, Tim, Jane, and Barnaby A and Barnaby B (as Linda dubs them), as well as the orphan they name Ruth, form a sort of family. Ruth is super-speedy, highly energetic, and full of love; Linda makes a mean bowl of oatmeal; and Commander Melanoff gives the children all the candy they want. But their rainbow-colored idyll is disrupted by Orphan Services, who take in the Willoughby children and separate them from each other. How will they be reunited with each other, and with Linda, Commander Melanoff, and Ruth? What role do the Willoughby parents have to play in all this? What sort of family will Tim, Ruth, and the Barnabys ever have?
The prevailing theme of “The Willoughbys” is about family and the power to create your own family by choosing who you love, and in that way the film models positive relationships through Linda’s caring for the children, how immediately Commander Melanoff is charmed by Ruth, and how those three disparate groups all come together. Rudolph is a real standout here as the quick-thinking and warm Linda, and her voice performance is the strongest in the cast and her character the best developed. Meanwhile, the behavior of the Willoughby parents is horrible, but comically so. What is legitimately troubling, however, is how the film presents the government-run “Orphan Services” as evil bureaucrats nearly robotic in their disinterest in children’s happiness. How the film presents that option for adoption—as if any child who enters into a state- or city-run system is lost, forgotten, or abused—feels a little irresponsible for a movie that otherwise positively represents the possibility of other people outside of your biological family being capable of love and affection toward you.
Aside from those emotional and narrative elements, the film’s visual style mimics stop-motion animation, which sometimes looks quite interesting—how the Willoughbys’ famed facial hair looks like yarn; a scene in which Linda dresses up as a monster to scare away potential buyers of the Willoughbys’ home—but otherwise, the movie’s computer animation style is blocky and garish. There is very little fluidity to the character movements; in particular, Gervais’s narrating cat looks like a blue blob more than a living creature. But the candy factory in which Commander Melanoff lives is bright, lively, and fun, and the film benefits from changes in scenery, like when we get glimpses of the Willoughby parents’ adventures around the world.
“The Willoughbys” is intermittently amusing, and young viewers will probably be delighted by the children’s increasingly desperate antics to never see their parents again, by the zaniness of Linda, and by the exciting sequences in the candy factory. But the film’s drastic changes in tone, how somewhat light-heartedly it treats the notion of orphanhood, and its muddled messaging about the adoption experience are worth addressing with viewers after the film ends.
“The Willoughbys” began streaming on Netflix on April 22, 2020.