The Willoughbys, an animated film that was released by Netflix this week, hits differently than it normally would. Perhaps it’s because most of the world is currently in lockdown, our interactions with our loved ones and families brought to a screeching halt. So as we watch the Willoughby siblings navigate the path of trying to find a family to belong to, it makes us think about our own imperfectly perfect families, and the distance that now exists between us and the people we love. That is the best thing about film I suppose – how we see our own lives in relation to the world on the screen.
The Willoughbys is adapted from Lois Lowry’s book of the same name, and I am pleased to say it does justice to the source material. The use of Ricky Gervais as the narrator of the story adds a nice element to the storytelling, very reminiscent of the technique used by Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
It helps in subverting expectation, because the cat narrator will warn us of something and there is a misdirect before we get to see what he was truly warning us about. While the film seems to promise a grim deliverable, where we see every positive experience the siblings experience followed by disaster and hopelessness, at the end we finally see the film break free from this, cementing itself as a children’s tale after all.
When we begin the story, eldest Willoughby Tim (Will Forte) is obsessed with preserving the Willoughby legacy, which is why he tolerates his god awful parents and urges his siblings to do the same. He believes that if they toe the line enough, one day their parents will snap of their selfish involvement with each other and love their children. This is something he continues to hold onto until the end, seeing family as something you are born into.
His sister Jane (Alessia Cara) believes differently. When she sees an orphan abandoned outside their home, her instinct is to make the baby a part of their home. She is also the first one to really take to the madcap nanny (Maya Rudolph) that comes to take care of them, emotionally open with her heart. She is the one who reminds the siblings that they themselves are a family, that social norms of a nuclear family doesn’t a true family make.
The film has much humour as well, mainly involving the Barnaby twins (Seán Cullen), who share a name and a sweater. Their so-called creepiness made me laugh so much during the course of the film (the zig-zag sequence is top notch), where they are brilliant inventors but inexperienced in the wider world much like how you would expect a younger sibling to be.
I like how the true parental figures are linked to food in the film. We have the nanny, who wins the siblings over with her oats (there is commentary in the film of how difficult it is to make oats, since much work is done to get it soft enough), and Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews) has built a successful candy empire (he learns other types of food as well).
While Mother (Jane Krakowski) seems to be nurturing with all the knitting she does, we see how her actions render her efforts fruitless. Despite all this knitting, the Barnabys only have one sweater. She also has to snip material from Father (Martin Short) in order to keep knitting, indicating a more destructive than maternal presence.
As much as this is an animated film that would appeal to younger audiences, with the outstanding visuals and humour it has, there is an oddball, quirky charm to it that allows it to be something enjoyable for us adults as well. I spent a memorable afternoon with it, having a Netflix party with my brother, and as we laughed into our keyboards, connected by filmsy wires that attempt to bridge the distance, the film succeeded in reminding me that I am loved and have much to be thankful for.
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Netflix's The Willoughbys is candy-coated silliness, with a red, beating heart. It offers much humour and has enough flame to thaw a grinch-like heart.
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