Film, Netflix

“The Willoughbys” though no masterpiece is bright, funny and entertaining

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It’s good to see original animated movies or animated movies that are based on lesser known books and works. It allows for a far more lenient adaptation; the creators don’t need to worry about pissing off too many fans. I never read The Willoughbys even though I think Lois Lowry is a brilliant author.

Though the fact that the book came out in 2008, when I was 13 probably has something to do with it. This woman has range! The Giver Quartet, Number the Stars and now this wonderful little story to satisfy that sense of justice all kids have.

The Netflix adaptation of the book is a very cute, funny movie that doesn’t try to defy audience expectations, has some very nice things to say about love and family, but has some odd pacing and unnecessary subplots. But the latter don’t really ruin the film for me -it’s certainly something I will watch again. And again. 

The film focuses on the latest generation of the Willoughby clan, a family known for their mustaches (even the women), their adventuring and contributions to all forms of academia. 

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Too bad for the current Willoughby kids – the eldest neurotic Tim, the musical Jane and the twins Barnaby – their parents are dumb, neglectful and obsessed only with each other. So, they’re left to their own devices basically locked in their home while their parents -spend most of the time being one of the horniest character pairs in a children’s movie, ever.

The kids decide to send their parents on a tour of death in order to become orphans, so they can be like James from James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. However, they don’t count on their parents hiring a nanny (the cheapest one they could find but an adult caretaker nonetheless.)

Then shenanigans ensue.

In Loco Parentis

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The one thing that always makes me uncomfortable in these kinds of films -is the idea that abusive parents should be forgiven. Sure Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket give these adults their comeuppance, but all too often other media says these parents are capable of change and that if so, they should be forgiven, ignoring all the hurt they put their kid through.

And it also shows other adults ignoring the abuse. 

The Willoughbys does none of this. The parents are just plain assholes. They care very little for their kids – making them eat leftovers (if there are any), sending them to the coal bin if they misbehave, not giving them proper bedrooms and seemingly not letting them outside. They’re neglectful. They’re too obsessed with themselves – and apparently living off the family fortune, so they don’t have jobs.

And no adults acknowledge this abuse mostly because it appears the kids don’t go to school, see a doctor or have any friends… How could somebody know something was wrong? Honestly, I’m surprised by the implication that the parents cook for themselves since there’s no sign of a chef, and they definitely don’t do take-out.

And Mother and Father, their real names are never revealed, are stupid. Like, “Darwinism at work” levels of obliviousness. 

Mother didn’t even know she was pregnant until Tim, the eldest, was born and so out of touch, they don’t know what the Internet is (which I guess can clear up any plot holes about birth control but still…because these parents are always seemingly engaged in some kind of foreplay, you would still think they would consider this.

Or maybe they have no idea where babies come from. That’s entirely possible.

Mother also has an odd habit of using Father’s mustache hair for knitting –which is just…interesting in its implications. Like she possibly married him partially for his mustache, even though his is the least impressive among the Willoughbys.

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But yeah, these two don’t have a single redeeming quality. They don’t even know any of the younger kids’ names- despite that there are only two names among the three kids. They didn’t even give the twins separate names!

Like the parents are so ridiculously overtop and so entertaining, but in no way shape or form sympathetic or likeable. I love it.

And there’s an interesting conflict that this brings up because Tim still wants to be a great Willoughby – he’s read all the books and knows all the stories of his ancestors. He wants to restore the family’s name and honor… He just doesn’t like his parents. In his heart he’s a Willoughby and that comes with certain responsibilities like maintaining the family home. He feels the need to make up for his parents’ lack of…everything.

His siblings are a lot less neurotic; they’ve found their passions and their family name isn’t as important to them as being together and having love. For all they care they could be the Cohens, the Jones or the Washingtons. As long as they’re together, that’s all that really matters.

And luckily that’s what they get in the end.

Abuse caboose…

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that wasn’t an after school special type that actually uses the word “abuse” before. That’s pretty impressive for a movie aimed at the 7-and-up set.

The nanny, the Willoughby parents hire at first, thinks the kids are exaggerating about their parents, and she’s lively and joking around. When Tim makes a mistake, she decides to send him to time out, but before she can do that –Tim goes to the coal bin.

And her whole demeanor changes.

Even though the kids know their parents are horrible, this is probably the first time they’ve had an outsider agree with them

She doesn’t call the Department of Orphan Services – but that’s for multiple reasons. And she decides that the children are hers…at least until the parents come home. When the parents call her to say they’re selling the house and never coming back –she immediately decides to adopt the kids.

Leading to a huge misunderstanding when Tim finds at text telling the parents she’ll “take care of the kids”  and getting the family split among several foster homes. And the cherry on top of this abuse sundae is that after everything when the kids decide to take their parents back, so they won’t be separated…

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby abandon them on a Mount Everest expy to die. There’s the smallest moment where you think they might recognize the error of their ways, making it all the more heartbreaking when the kids finally have the awful realization,

At least the parents get eaten by a shark. But even that could have been too good for them…

Humor is on point

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The humor is pretty smart—there’s a lot of whit mixed with slapstick and I found myself genuinely laughing throughout the film. Which is good – it can be hard to find humor in kids’ films as an adult, but this one nailed it.

There were a few jokes that didn’t fall quite right, but they weren’t insulting or demeaning. Most of that revolves around the Baby Ruth subplot -where Jane tries to take care of a baby left on the side of the road, but Tim makes her give up.

When the baby is first revealed to the parents, they somehow think she’s Jane’s baby. Despite the fact that she’s like 12 and the baby seems to be a different race, and she doesn’t know any guy but her brothers…It really is just funny when you’re watching it.

And Nanny brings a lot of joy to the film – she’s very cheerful and happy and responsible, but she is not above it and willing to get down and dirty. Plus she is super there for the Willoughby kids and even helps them stop the house from being sold.

It balances the humor and plot quite well, which is really great.

Wild Animation 

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The character designs and animation are both great – I love how it looks like the characters’ hair is actually made out of yarn, how it’s all stylized and goofy and how the character designs are all very distinct and goofy without being unappealing.

The characters are all given very distinct personalities -aside from the Barnabys…but that’s part of the joke. I adore Jane’s naivete and her habit of breaking into song -which is both used for emotion and humor.

The parents were right about the Barnabys being creepy – but I love how you can never quite tell which is which in the film and how they’re constantly trading their lone sweater back and forth, making it even more difficult to keep track which is Barnaby A and which is Barnaby B.

Pacing plot problems

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The issue with this moving is its pacing, a good chunk of the first fifteen minutes/half hour  of this movie is focused on the baby the children find abandoned in front of their house. Jane wants to keep it –Tim does not. For obvious reasons. Since Jane refuses to give the orphan up to services, they leave her instead at “the end of the rainbow” which is a candy factory. They name her Ruth. She is found by the factory’s owner, Commander Melanoff…who takes her inside…

It just feels kind of awkward because it’s only on their way home that their plan starts to happen. And then the real plot begins. It felt kind of awkward to be honest.

I assume Ruth was a book character, but her plot feels kind of awkward and shoved in during the film. If she hadn’t been there – I think we could have spent more time developing the Willoughby children and maybe even dig in a little more to Nanny’s backstory and the relationship the kids develop with Nanny.

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I would have loved to see more of them learning to bond and trust each other. Teaching the kids about a loving guardian. I feel like we kind of gloss over that and it feels like the film is trying to squeeze as much in as possible.

While Ruth and Melanoff do come in later, it still feels like that plot takes away quite a bit from the Willoughbys’ story.

The cat narrator, who I assume is also a holdover from the books, is kind of odd. Even though he’s tangentially related to the plot and does add some humor – I feel like we could have gotten the same exposition another way… Even if we did miss his lines like “Darwinism at work.”

I got it, but it felt out of place.

But it does feel like there are so many conflicts in the film sending away the parents, can they trust the nanny, the parents deciding to sell their home to continue traveling, the kids getting separated into foster homes, rescuing the parents that it’s hard to find time to develop them all. It mostly works, but I think it could have been improved if one or two things were cut out of the film to focus more on other issues.

I know it is supposed to be humorous but I do wish Tim had gotten the mustache. He did so much, and yet he’s the only one without one at the end of the movie. There are some interesting implications there.

And that’s the scoop!

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Score: 8/10

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Info: 

Year of release:2020

Length: 92 minutes

Director/Writer: Kris Pearn

Producers: Brenda Gilbert, Luke Carroll

Screenplay writer: Kris Pearn, Mark Stanleigh

Based on: The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

Voice Actors: Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Alessia Cara, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Seán Cullen, Ricky Gervais

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If you liked this review please read: Laika’s “Missing Link” is missing something

 

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