The Willoughbys is an odd little film, full of contradictions.
The story is a dark but sweet. The Willoughby children come from a long line of impressive ancestors. But the family tree withered with their parents who care for no one but themselves. So what are a group of abused children to do but orphan themselves! Yes, it sounds pretty grim, but it’s mostly done in a light-hearted way. And you have to admit it’s at least a unique idea — usually the parents are already dead in animated films! The problem with the plot is it’s a bit scattershot. There’s no single through-line, it’s a lot of story pieces thrown together in an almost haphazard way. Normally that’s a deal-killer. But here it kind of gave everything a more frenzied feel which, while I don’t feel was necessarily intended, works pretty well with the tone of the film. What really pulls together the disparate pieces is the humor. It’s a very funny movie, but usually in a way that surprises you rather than just with cliched kids jokes.
The animation isn’t top notch but it’s very charming. From BRON Animation, it’s easy to tell where shortcuts had to be taken in the filmmaking process. But where it mattered, the animators went all out. The overall style of the film is based on a beautiful, craft-y, almost hand-made look that softens some of the darkness of the plot. The character designs are unique and appealing. And the character animation is fun and very well done.
The characters are dysfunctional but likable. Some of that is down to story, some to design, and a lot to the voice acting. Will Forte is at his best as the oldest Willoughby and wannabe provider, Tim. I wasn’t sure Alessia Cara was a good fit at first for sister Jane. She has a distinctive voice that didn’t mesh well for me. But as the movie went on and we got to know her character, I came to like the casting choice. Seán Cullen as the Barnabys gave a creepy good performance. I love Maya Rudolph in almost everything she does, and this part as a nanny whose motives are under suspicion was no exception. Somehow Martin Short and Jane Krakowski made extremely terrible parents endearing! Terry Crews was good as a candy factory owner, though probably under utilized. And Ricky Gervais as the narrator — I really thought his usual shtick would get old here, but the writers wove his part in so well that the film wouldn’t have worked without him.
The Willoughbys is not on the same level as the best from Disney or Pixar. But it’s a lot better than many of the things that have made it to the big screen in recent years. If this is the type of film we can expect from streaming services in the future, sign me up!
April 22, 2020
directed by Kris Pearn