The Willoughbys (2020)
I am well aware that I am a fully grown man and have been for arguably ten years now. I am not exactly the key demographic for The Willoughbys (2020), or any children's movie except for Detective Pikachu (2019), really.
On the other hand, my wife got annoyed at me for being too childish when I tried to microwave my underwear so they would be warm, so who knows?
The way computer generated animation has evolved over the last thirty years really is astounding. With Klaus (2019) last year and The Willoughbys (2020) this year, it seems like Netflix is really letting animated films get interesting with their animation. Animation in itself is an artform, and the filmmakers behind this film know that and go to great lengths to show it off. Craig Kellman, the character designer behind The Powerpuff Girls Movie (2002 and the first movie I ever saw on DVD), Hotel Transylvania (2012) and The Ricky Gervais Show (2010), is firing on all cylinders, pulling off beautifully designed characters that perfectly harmonise with the wacky world presented. It’s quirky, it’s weird, it’s fun.
Pictured: the reason to get excited for character design, I swear.
The voice work is suitably ridiculous to fit the animation style. It’s hard to pull stand out performances when all of them are so good, but Martin Short and Jane Krakowski succinctly encapsulate the insidious characters of Mother and Father, who you just can’t help but love to hate. Even Ricky Gervais, who is not usually a good actor as much as he is just a funny guy, works very well as the narrating cat. I was tickled just so when I realised that when the cat meows, it's Gervais himself saying the word meow.
Alessia Cara made her voice acting debut wonderfully, but inexplicably her singing always sounds off. I know she’s a singer and I know it is really her singing, but whenever her character sings in the movie, it sounds weirdly auto-tuned. I don’t know whether to blame her, or someone in the audio department. I’m looking at you, Tom Myers! What did you do to her? Or was it you James Austin? I trusted you! It could be Brad Haehnel, even! I don’t know…. Dominick Certo? Stop me when I get it… Steve Slanec?
The trailer really did a weird job for this one. I mean, after watching the film, I also wouldn’t know how to make a trailer for it, and I kind of edit trailers for a living! But the trailer weirdly shows a cohesive story of children trying to orphan themselves, and then running away from authorities. That’s like only twenty minutes of the ninety-minute runtime.
It is a very funny story, but it feels less like one story, and more like six stories, one after the other, that all happen to be kind of going in the same direction, vaguely, if you squint. I saw at the start that it is based on a book, and I foolishly thought that, like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, it was several books rolled into one. It's not. It is one short novel that must be a wild ride. It was a fun time, but I genuinely could not focus on it because I felt it couldn’t focus on itself.
At one point, I paused to go to the bathroom, got distracted, came back after twenty minutes and felt like I had started a new movie when I pressed play.
Looking at the plot synopsis of the book, it claims to be a “parody of the classic works of children’s literature,” and frankly, I think it fails for the most part. If anything, it just feels like a reverse Lemony Snicket (what if the parents were bad and the kids had to kill the parents?).
There is a clear message by the end, and it is a good message, but I’m not sure how anyone's meant to feel about it. I totally get that blood may be thicker than water, but blood can also suck and if your family is toxic, cut out the toxic in your life, and moustaches are dope. Self love. It’s good. It’s a good thing to know. So is the moustaches are dope thing. And if you have a pathetic moustache, you are a pathetic person. All true, all important lessons.
I just feel there is a more satirical way to get that message across. This is where the “I’m a snobbish adult” thing comes out in me, but parody is always better if it’s melded with satire, rather than just having funny things happen. Matilda (1996) did it better. Sorry.
Pictured: Me, a snobbish adult
And this is where the snobbish adult leaves me. The animation alone is enough fun to warrant a watch. So many computer animated films go for realistic or bland animation, which you know, is fine if that’s what you’re going for. But sometimes I want to see a character's upper jaw hinge back as they purr like a horny kitten. Sometimes I want to see a character grow their yarn moustache so it can be harvested. Sometimes I want to see a baby Pacman in a candy factory. Sometimes I want to see a thirty car pile up in a car park, juxtaposed with a single car pulling out, putting their blinker on and honking.
The humour can be very dark, but very universally slapstick at the same time. On one hand, the plot does involve children plotting their parents' death, but on the other hand, the ridiculous ways they narrowly avoid death while putting everyone else in danger is a pure joy. Running physical gags like the aforementioned car accident gag can feel like they’re ironically running out of gas, but the film is short enough that it’s not too much of a worry. It’s incredibly witty and self aware, but not in an annoying, “oh, look how funny we are,” way, instead in a more-over-the-top-Wes-Anderson sort of way. Story structure aside, the writing is hilarious.
If you can handle watching several characters literally freeze to death, then this is a romp. Also, candy meatloaf? Am I remembering that right? It just says, "candy meatloaf" in my notes.
Pictured: I swear there was candy meatloaf here a second ago