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Movie Review: 'The Willoughbys'

Directed by: Kris Pearn, Cory Evans
Starring: Will Forte, Alessia Cara, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski
Available on Netflix
Rated PG, 90 minutes

There are kids’ movies that appeal only to kids, and there are kids’ movies that appeal to both children and adults. And then there’s “The Willoughbys.” The animated comedy, based on a novel by the Newbery Medal-winning children’s novelist Lois Lowry, doesn’t just side with kids against their oblivious parents, but kicks mom and dad out of the room entirely. It bills itself as a family movie “for anyone who ever wanted to get away from their family,” and it commits boldly to that sentiment, even while it keeps its PG rating. It may lean into several stereotypes of kids’ movies, but it does so mischievously, treading the line between goofy and downright grim.

A scene from the animated comedy "The Willoughbys.” (Courtesy photo)

Narrated by a stray cat, the adventure follows the four Willoughby children as they try to orphan themselves. The Willoughby family tree is marked by fame and glory, featuring great adventurers, noble leaders, and an assortment of stately red mustaches. Tim Willoughby (Will Forte, “Saturday Night Live”), the oldest of the Willoughby children, seeks to live up to the family’s proud lineage, but finds himself held back by his parents (not to mention his inability to grow facial hair). Mother (Jane Krakowski, “30 Rock”) and Father (Martin Short, “¡Three Amigos!”) have plenty of love for each other, but none whatsoever for their children; they starve them, ignore them, insult them, and when all else fails, banish them to a coal bin. When an orphan baby is left on their doorstep, the Willoughby children, without any assistance from their parents, do the right thing and take the child to a home where it will have a better chance at a happy life. But in doing so, they realize just how much better off they would be without their parents.

What follows is a scheme that runs somewhere between “Home Alone” and the Lizzie Borden murders. Tim, his sister Jane (singer Alessia Cara), and their young twin brothers (both inexplicably named Barnaby) trick their parents into taking a vacation to the most remote and dangerous locations on earth, trusting that their carelessness will lead to their demise, and thus to the children’s freedom. What they don’t expect is the frizzy-haired nanny, Linda (Maya Rudolph, “Saturday Night Live”), who shows up to supervise them in their parents’ absence. Linda turns out to be far more nurturing and fun than they expect, but also far more responsible. Torn between the joys of their newfound freedom and their responsibility to their family, the Willoughbys have to decide whether to save their parents or leave them to suffer, much like how Father and Mother have left the children to suffer for years.

Their struggle with this heavy question feels light and breezy, thanks to an animation style that makes caricatures of everyone and everything. The Willoughbys’ hair, their most notable physical feature, has the texture of yarn, so much so that Mother harvests Father’s facial hair for her knitting. Characters are either pencil-thin or spherical; catapults and elaborate disguises materialize out of thin air; cars in the background repeatedly get into pileups that defy the laws of physics. By itself, the premise of the movie is surely too dark to believe as something made for kids, but the visual gags consistently restore our suspension of disbelief. Even kids can enjoy gallows humor, “The Willoughbys” argues.

The kids are all right

The movie also stands out for its treatment of the four Willoughby children, neglected and unloved by their self-absorbed parents. Rather than punish them for their mischief, or lecture them about the feelings and experiences of others, the story validates their impression of the world. Told from their point of view, the movie is often ridiculous, but all the same, there isn’t any magical key to resolving their predicament; what you see is what you get, and the Willoughby children have simply gotten a rotten deal in life. The movie makes no effort to redeem the unredeemable, suggesting that our efforts to do so would be better spent elsewhere.

It’s a curious theme for a family movie, not just because it gives the story an unusual edge, but also because it means the movie’s capacity to remind us of the ties that bind is dependent entirely on who’s watching. Not all families are meant to have a happy ending, “The Willoughbys” suggests. Sometimes, the kids are all right, even if the adults aren’t.

  Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate, lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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