Animated kids films have, over the years, gone from strength to strength. With franchises like Toy Story and Frozen, and indie animations like 2019’s Klaus, it’s clear to see that children are hardly deprived of top-notch filmmaking. Netflix’s latest foray into the cartoon business is The Willoughbys: an energetic, colourful, and plain weird take on family life, based on the book by Lois Lowry.
The Willoughbys follows the Willoughby family: a red haired, spectacularly moustachioed cohort that are known, throughout history, for doing creative and courageous things. However, Mother and Father Willoughby are more interested in each other than their four children, leaving them to live with no food, no fun, and no love. After a child is left on their doorstep one night, the Willoughby children hatch a plan to become orphans themselves – but it doesn’t quite go how they were planning.
The Willoughbys starts off as it means to go on: weird. From Ricky Gervais as the omniscient feline narrator, to the two twin Willoughby children sharing one name (they’re both called Barnaby, and they share one jumper between them), it’s definitely a surprise behind most corners. It’s not hard to see why the cast features so many comedy superstars – Will Forte, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, and Maya Rudolph to name a few. It’s genuinely funny. Not just childish laugh funny either: this is the kind of film that parents will enjoy, too.
Will Forte’s Tim (the oldest Willoughby child) is obsessed with tradition, something that his younger siblings aren’t really on board with. Alessia Cara’s Jane is the rash one, becoming the catalyst for many of the stories plot points. However, her affinity with singing, as lovely as her voice is, doesn’t add anything to the plot. Instead, it just comes across as a twee way of incorporating the song that was written for the film.
The narrator, in true Ricky Gervais form, is slightly bitter, but also philosophical. The idea of a cat that transcends space and time may seem a bit odd, but this movie makes it seem completely normal. However, the highlight of this movie – without a doubt – are the Barnaby’s. With their red Lego hair, and their creepy, soul-watching stare, they bring both the comic relief, and the cuteness, to the plot.
It’s so plain to see that co-writer/director Kris Pearns had so much fun with this movie. It’s delightfully bonkers, chucking in Terry Crews as a blue-meanie looking Commander that owns a sweet factory, really fat ducks, and a dirigible that runs exclusively on sugar. The entire film feels like a childhood fever dream – the kind you get after a very violent sugar rush.
Described as Grey Gardens meets Arrested Development, but for kids, The Willoughbys mixes the saccharine chaos with genuine moments of bleakness. From the child abuse, to the terrifying officers in charge of orphaned children, the movie tackles ideas that, children’s movies wouldn’t usually handle. As inappropriate as it may sound, it actually manages to bring them to the forefront in a way that children would understand, but wouldn’t be upset by, by utilising their strong child characters and the supporting characters that eventually help them to form their own family. With Maya Rudolph’s character, Nanny, essentially being a walking hug, it shows children that the best way to tackle life is with love and unconditional acceptance.
However, not everything about this movie works. It’s aesthetically gorgeous, but sometimes the plot falls through. Too many minor events happen, leaving the end to be underwhelming. As a movie that emphasises the idea of choosing your own family, it delivers the message, but in a way that plateaus, rather than crescendos. This, after the rollercoaster ride of the rest of the movie, leaves the audience feeling deflated. With only a 90 minute running time, the film would have definitely benefited from a slightly more elaborate ending, rather than just a syrupy sweet one.
With nightmare parents (who are highly inappropriate), strange siblings, and a happy ending, this movie has everything that both parents and children will enjoy. It’s an ode to living in the here and now, and that you always have the power and independence to choose your own family. As soppy as it is, it’s well worth a watch.