Directed by: Kris Pearn and Cory Evans and Rob Lodermeier
Premise: An animated film based on the book by Lois Lowry. The children of neglectful parents scheme to send the adults on a never ending vacation. They are observed by a nanny who helps them learn the true meaning of family.
What Works: The Willoughbys is a family friendly adventure tale. Like a lot of these sorts of pictures, the story focuses on a family. The lead characters are the children of a callously neglectful couple. The children have to look out for each other and they trick their parents into leaving them. The parents are replaced by a well-meaning nanny (voiced by Maya Rudolph), but the eldest brother (voice of Will Forte) is suspicious of adults and much of the story is about the siblings trying to keep themselves together while resisting authority figures. The scenario of The Willoughbys is a soft metaphor for child abuse and what’s unique about this film is the way the children gradually come to realize that their parents’ neglectfulness was not normal or right. That’s a compelling idea, a little meatier than we usually get in a family film, which distinguishes The Willoughbys from other animated features. The seriousness of the story’s themes is offset by the humor. There are some wacky visual gags as well as some witty dialogue and The Willoughbys moves along quickly. The picture also has an interesting look. The Willoughbys is a work of digital animation but the settings and the characters have a vivid visual texture that resembles stop motion animation. The visual style gives The Willoughbys a similar charm.
What Doesn’t: Despite its metaphor for child neglect, The Willoughbys is a lightweight animated feature. There’s nothing wrong with that but the movie’s emotional impact is limited. That’s partly due to the predictable qualities of the story but also because its characters and story world are cartoonish. The characters don’t have much depth. They don’t possess the interior life or vulnerability seen in better animated features and the world of The Willoughbys is so fanciful that its lack of reality works against the drama. The film is also hobbled by narration from a cat voiced by Ricky Gervais. The voiceover isn’t necessary. Gervais is fine in the part but the narration doesn’t add anything to the story and mostly explains to the viewer what’s already obvious.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Willoughbys is a satisfying animated feature that introduces its youngest viewers to some complex ideas about family. The film’s design is sometimes a bit too cartoonish in a way that is counterproductive but it is humorous and entertaining.
Episode: #815 (August 30, 2020)