A black comedy with energy and messages for kids and adults
The worst movies about kids getting rid of their parents both came out in 1994. Rob Reiner’s “North” was a mean-spirited and offensive hunk of garbage with the 12-year-old Elijah Wood suing his parents for divorce before going on a worldwide tour for new parents. Roger Ebert’s scathing review of that is one of the best pieces of literature. And before that Sissy Spacek gave her career’s worst performance as a bossy mom, a French fashion mom, a sporty mom, and a clown mom. I often look back at that film just to laugh at how bad the acting and filmmaking is.
The reason I’m bringing these losers up is because “The Willoughbys,” an animated film just released on Netflix, is based on Lois Lowrey’s book about children who hate their unloving parents so much, that they devise a plan to send them away. It’s a CGI film designed to look like stop-motion, and its attention to detail is almost in the vein of a pop-up book. Even the hair looks like it’s made from yarn, and this looks great. Just as long as this type of CGI doesn’t erase the hardworking stop-motion craftsmanship from existence.
Besides the animation, “The Willoughbys” may get exhausting at times, but if you look closely, you’ll find a good-hearted and silly black comedy with inspiration from “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” “Coraline,” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” And it’s certainly much more lively and considerate than “North” and “Trading Mom.”
In the movie, we see the Willoughby parents (voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krawkoski) rejecting, starving, and neglecting their four kids every step of the way, while blaming their oldest son Tim (voiced by Will Forte) for their so-called misfortunes. He’s basically the only member of the family who wants to live up to the Willoughby family name with their mustaches, old-fashioned manners, and grace; while his sister Jane (voiced by Alessia Cara in her acting debut) aspires to be a singer and their twin brothers both named Barnaby (voiced by Sean Cullen) are just plain creepy (one of the reasons being that they both share the same sweater).
They give them a fake brochure, and the parents are so excited about its “No Children Allowed” policy, that they immediately drive away. But not after they hire a nanny, whom they think will be cheap and horrible. No, this nanny (voiced by Maya Rudolph) is spontaneous and loves children. Even she helps them, when they become the targets of child services.
The exhaustion I’m referring to is when we see Tim being stubborn in his lifelong mission to become a true Willoughby, and an orphaned baby having sugar rush. But we still see a likable spark in Tim, and Forte provides him with some solid voice work.
Cara makes an impressive acting debut with her age and singing voice as Jane, whose persistence and attitude makes her a smart young woman. Rudolph is exuberant as the nanny with the kind of motivation she provides in her Hormone Monstress character on “Big Mouth.” Short and Krakowski both sound like they’re having a fun time voicing selfish parents. Cullen uses silly voices as the Barnaby twins. Terry Crews also has a sweetness in him as the movie’s Willy Wonka-Commander Melanoff. And Ricky Gervais is witty and charming as the narrating cat, who sometimes thinks about himself in the story.
“The Willoughbys,” directed by Kris Pearn (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”), is sometimes mean and cynical, but it’s also colorful, silly, warmhearted, and often very funny.
Available for Streaming on Netflix