A year after Sony’s wonderfully inventive Into the Spider-Verse became the first non-Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks film to win the best animated feature Oscar since 2011, the race was again populated by outliers. Frozen 2 was snubbed and instead Laika crept back into the spotlight with Missing Link (after winning the Golden Globe) and Netflix snuck in with two originals – Klaus and I Lost My Body – marking the streamer’s first time breaking into the pack. While Toy Story 4 might have ultimately won out, the lineup continued to reflect both a widening field and an embrace of more left-field choices, a much-needed jolt of energy in what used to be a two-horse race.
Their latest animated offering, pre-summer caper The Willoughbys, is not exactly Oscarbait but it’s further proof that Netflix is making a hefty investment in its animated content with a film as robustly made as any studio-funded theatrical release. It’s a mixed bag of tricks but there’s enough energy and left-field imagination here to make it a not completely fruitless option for parents forced to rewatch it on a loop over the coming weeks. Like reigning lockdown family favourite Trolls: World Tour, it’s a story told at high speed, an adventure that recalls everything from The Addams Family to Home Alone to A Series of Unfortunate Events to The Royal Tenenbaums, skating past so many familiar touch points while struggling to fully develop its own identity.
Throughout history, the Willoughby name has been attached to heroic, intelligent, groundbreaking figures, a tradition that has come to an abrupt end with the latest descendent: a selfish, stupid man and his equally wretched wife. Despite hating children, they end up producing four of them who grow up with a constant reminder of how unwanted and unloved they are. Through an unusual set of circumstances involving an abandoned baby and a candy factory, the kids concoct a plan: they will orphan themselves in order to find a better life.
It’s a dark conceit for a film aimed at a young audience, shown off in one of the film’s funniest sequences that montages a variety of different death scenarios for their awful parents. Narrated by a cat voiced by Ricky Gervais, there’s a Lemony Snicket-esque “this isn’t your average kids movie” tone to The Willoughbys as we’re informed early on that this won’t have a happy ending. It’s not exactly true but in one particular respect, that I won’t spoil, the film does have the courage of its early convictions, denying us a buoyant reversal we’re fully expecting.
I wondered at times what could have been if the film had been aimed at younger teens rather than children and leaned further into the darkness because instead The Willoughbys offsets its gothicism with bright colours and slapstick humour, speeding along at such a manic pace that it’s often hard to keep up with. The frantic plot is a little too frantic at times, adding so much that it starts to take away from the intriguing set up. The film’s busyness also starts to muddy its emotional core, which hampers what’s framed as a heart-tugger of an ending.
But the director, Kris Pearn, whose last film was the similarly overstuffed sequel to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, keeps things visually inventive until the end, packing his short film with almost enough imaginative imagery to distinguish it from its many peers. While there’s an odd disparity in age between the voices behind the lead siblings (49-year-old Will Forte playing the older kid brother to 23-year-old Alessia Cara), the cast, including Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews and Jane Krakowski, spark off each other well, the choice to use established comic actors adding much-needed humour to a script that sorely needs it.
While The Willoughbys might not boast the slick structure or beating heart of a Pixar animation, there’s enough offbeat charm to make it an easily digestible watch and for any concerned parents, the practice of “orphaning” involves so much work, your kids will likely be scared off …
Source: The Guardian