Although THE WILLOUGHBYS is adapted from a children’s book of the same name, the best reference for what to expert here is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. After all, both stories focus on a group of siblings with a knack for inventing who are forced to fend for themselves due to hardship. The key difference for the Willoughby children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and the Barnaby twins (Sean Cullen), is that their parents are still alive. They simply hate children.
The characterisation of Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) is a highlight of the film’s first act, and is certain to dissuade any notions of THE WILLOUGHBYS being ‘just for kids’. Their exaggerated cruelty is entertaining enough (poor Tim spends every night in the coal bin as punishment for asking for food), but the writers continue adding absurd flourishes to the pair to keep them from becoming one-note. My personal favourite of these is Mother’s obsession with knitting; Krakowski sounds increasingly exasperated each time she screams at the children for interrupting her creative process. Before you know it, she’s trimming Father’s moustache for extra yarn.
However, this is first and foremost the younger Willoughbys’ story, with a simple yet poignant goal of finally being part of a loving family. I was largely impressed by how fleshed-out and distinct the children feel, even in the types of jokes the writers choose to tell with them. For instance, the overly serious Tim is prone to pratfalls and slapstick, while the wonderfully weird Barnabys are a constant source of one-liners and jokes about eerie twin connections. Speaking of weird, the theme of the loving family goes in a vastly different direction than what audiences will likely expect, almost serving as a parody of traditional family-centric tales.
The film’s willingness to play with tradition is clear from its visuals, giving a jerky edge to its computer- generated animation to mimic the feel of stop motion. There are even elements designed to appear hand-crafted: rainbows, clouds and the children’s hair resemble wool, while close-up shots of dirigible from towards the end of the film almost had me convinced it was a scanned model. The colour palette is beautiful as well, usually opting for as many bright primary colours in a frame as possible but knowing when to restrain itself. Seriously, this might be the best-looking animated feature on Netflix.
In my opinion, the only aspect occasionally holding THE WILLOUGHBYS back is Jane. Somewhat ironically given she’s the middle child, Jane simply isn’t given much to do from the second act onwards, as the kids’ nanny Linda (Maya Rudolph) is introduced to take over the role of fun-loving free spirit. Don’t get me wrong, the film wouldn’t work without Linda, and Rudolph is easily the most talented and expressive voice actor in the cast. Unfortunately though, Jane is left simply going along for the ride.
Jane is also the only main character without any memorable lines aside from an extremely annoying motif of singing what she’s thinking. My guess is that the writers were trying to utilise Alessia Cara’s voice as much as possible, but it makes her sound too old for the character. This melody also never changes, and eventually becomes a full song which is also played over the credits. It’s quite melodramatic and out of place, especially in a film with such an absurdist streak.
Aside from this admittedly minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the visually and tonally distinct world THE WILLOUGHBYS crafts for itself. I get the feeling it’s going to age well and be remembered as a classic twist on a family story. Or, at least, a reminder that your family might not be so crazy after all.