As Netflix continues to push for mainstream recognition one area it has long succeeded is in animation including garnering two Oscar nominations earlier this year for Best Animated Feature. They’re back in the game again in 2020 with a new animated film “The Willoughbys” from Bron Studios whose subsidiaries also brought us 2019’s CGI “The Addams Family” movie (which I skipped). Based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, “The Willoughbys” is fast paced with a unique animation style, a fun voice cast, and a nice moral core but all these elements alone don’t make for a great film. They also have to mix well and that is where this movie might falter for some. Time to dig deeper into this hour-and-a-half explosion of color and energy and see if “The Willoughbys” continues Netflix’s animation win streak or falls short of expectations.
“The Willoughbys” is by no means the best animated offering out there right now, but it’s pretty close to the top of the pack in a lot of ways. However, it’s quality may depend heavily on exactly what you’re looking for from an animated film. For what it is “The Willoughbys” is endlessly charming complimented by unique and eye-catching animation and fun voice work that brings its character’s to life. The story follows the titular children who are unfortunately saddled with uncaring parents who want nothing more than to enjoy each other’s company rather than embrace their kids. The four children, eldest child Tim played by Will Forte, the musical Jane played by Alessia Cara, and the twin Barnabys both voiced by Seán Cullen, decide to trick their parents into leaving on an expedition believing their lives would be better as orphans. A nanny, played by Mia Rudolph, unexpectedly comes into their lives and shows them that not all parental figures are bad forcing the kids to reassess their perspective on what it means to be a family. It’s a nice narrative idea but one that gets lost in the shuffle in favor of the film’s more entertaining qualities.
My primary issue with this movie is that its worthy themes and message sadly take a back seat to everything else. A lot of people see Pixar as the masters of animation today and the reason they’re so good is because they never let the imagination and energy of their films overshadow the message. The pacing and characters compliment the themes properly. With “The Willoughbys” relatable themes of family identity and sibling bonds are present and clear, but they’re easily overlooked in favor of the movie’s energy and eye candy. Eventually the film does cash in on its promised ideas and there is a lot of heart worked in to the story, but as a viewer I found it really difficult to invest as much in the morals even though I found myself entertained by the visuals and characters. It seemed to have a chaotic direction, but if you stay with it the plot eventually comes back around to its core message tackling the definition of family and sibling bonds. If you’re looking for a Pixar-esque movie that focuses more on capturing the heart of its story and entertains second then this movie might underwhelm. However it’s important to state that the themes are still there and utilized well, they’re just forsaken to favor fun over substance.
Everything else about this movie though is pure gold. The animation is unique giving “The Willoughbys” its own style that looks like it could have been some sort of stop-motion animation and yet it’s all done with CGI. I loved the color, character designs, and the world built around the characters. It’s all eye catching, fun and often evolves to match the ever-changing tones of the story. The Willoughby children are also imbued with their own very specific character traits that never dominate their personalities allowing the children to be more three-dimensional even when dwelling on just their one specific stand-out quirk. Tim for example seeks to embrace his family heritage well, but he’s also conflicted by his idea of what it means to be part of a legacy. Jane is a music lover often singing about random things in the world but she’s also the most open-minded of the children. The Barnabys get the least amount of character development but that’s because they’re meant to be strange, enigmatic and random. Other characters such as Ricky Gervais as the narrating cat, Maya Rudolph’s nanny Linda and Terry Crews’ Commander Malanoff also have opportunities to shine while the Willoughby’s neglectful parents, played by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, are fun characters that offer a challenge to viewers as relatable people we still can’t help but hate. Overall, the visuals, the characters, and the pacing make for a fun, engaging and energetic good time.
I think what impressed me the most about “The Willoughbys” though is that it’s clearly influenced by past works and yet it truly feels like its own thing. One of the biggest comparisons I can make personally is that this feels like a Lemony Snicket story touching on some pretty grim realities of the world and not afraid to go to some dark places, yet it remains bubbly and optimistic around every turn. Its chaotic mix of tones might not allow you to properly embrace everything its trying to say but you’re fully aware there’s more to it than just color and zany hijinks. “The Willoughbys” is still its own unique experience with its own style and creative approach to entertainment while only taking small inspirations from other works and never trying to emulate something else entirely. It’s very rare these days that you find an animated movie that’s not trying to be the next “Toy Story”, “Shrek” or “Ice Age” and this is one of those films that feels like it’s truly something all its own. It’s charming, engaging, entertaining and in a lot of ways interesting and imaginative so in spite of its flaws it’s an animated experience I can’t help by recommend.
“The Willoughbys” is not a flawless film and often forgets that it has something important to say in favor of giving younger viewers an endless barrage of visuals and energy to cling to, but it has its own special charm that helps it stand out in the crowded field of animation. The characters are memorable, the voice acting is fun, the visuals are unique and colorful, the pacing is engaging, and the mixing of tones creates a unique experience that, even without its deeper themes, would make for a fun time. Hidden underneath the chaos though is a nice narrative about the true meaning of family for those who have the patience to find it. Overall, I enjoyed this film. It’s nice to see a newer animation studio kind of doing its own thing these days and if this is the kind of product Bron Studios plans to continue to push out consider me completely on board.