Movie review: The Willoughbys

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

You may not think that a story of horrifically neglectful parents, starving children (emotionally and physically) and gothic hilarity told through vividly manic animation where the colours and sheer force of imagination are in perfect sync would be a good idea or come even remotely close to working, but it is and The Willoughbys is its name.

Based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, this piece of animation perfection is a gloriously off-the-wall meeting of Wes Anderson, The Addams Family, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Home Alone with a very peculiar (in the best meaning of the word) sensibility that never flags or loses sight of its unique vision for even one technicoloured nanosecond.

Coming across in many ways as the glorious love child of Pixar and Illumination – it has the former’s rich characterisation and palpable, affecting humanity and the latter’s wit, whimsy and love of visual gags and silly oneliners – The Willoughbys manages, with a dexterity known only to the most consummate of talents, of whom director Kris Pearn (he penned the screenplay too with Mark Stanleigh) is most certainly one, to be both deeply, darkly serious and gorgeously, vivaciously off-the-charts silly.

It is an intoxicating combination that works a treat despite the fact that much of the material, in common with many children’s classics, is bleak and despairing and not exactly standard Hollywood animation fodder (its closest counterpart, spiritually at least, would be the awesomely original house of Laika Studios).

If you dig down to children’s film past, such as Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid and Laika’s The Boxtrolls, there is a great deal of precedent for stories that don’t stint on life’s ability to throw some very nasty curveballs.

And the Willoughby children have been thrown the mother and father of virulently awful curveballs in parents Walter and Helga (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski respectively), two people so narcistically devoted to themselves and each otherand so content to live in their own toxically emotional bubble that the idea of being responsible for anyone but themselves is reprehensible.

(image courtesy Netflix)

They have children, of course, but in a scene that is both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, it becomes clear that they regard the idea of childbirth and raising children as inherently distasteful, a crime against their own debased form of humanity that cannot be allowed to interrupt Helga’s knitting (“I can’t knit!” is her anguished response to EVERYTHING) and Walter’s ship-in-a-bottle-esque tableaus of he and his warped beloved).

So it is that eldest child Tim (Will Forte) is, upon his birth, for which he is blamed as the architect of much suffering and rank unpleasantness on Helga’s part, essentially plonked in the hallway and left to fend for himself, a highly undesirable situation where he is soon accompanied by sister Jane (Alessia Cara) and oddly adorable twins Barnaby and Barnaby who share one jumper (Seán Cullen).

Theirs is a high unenviable existence – waiting for the leftovers from the parents’ meals before they can eat (assuming anything remains), spending nights in the coal bin (Tim especially) and having to be whisper quiet at all times, lest they disturb Helga’s knitting (the yarn for which is from a wholly creepy but oh-that-makes-perfect-sense-given-her-and Walter’s-dysfunction way).

Walter and Helga should, by all rights, be hauled off to child services and jailed for a good long time but with the family hidden away in a brightly-coloured “old fashioned home” with an immense front garden and high gothic fences, all of which is tucked rather weirdly between two towering grey skyscrapers in a bleakly impersonal city, no one notices or cares and so the Willoughby children are left to fend for themselves.

Somehow they make it work, and while Tim is prone to great bouts of existential angst that they are not as great or good as the Willoughbys of old, with their functional families and huge moustaches, the children are remarkably upbeat and optimistic still, though if they could get some more food, they’d be even happier.

Or … if they were orphans, they be even happier still.

Once that seed is planted, and the children concoct an indirectly macabre way of despatching their parents on an around-the-world trip that not only gets them out of the house but on their way to untimely demise perfectly befitting two “insidious grown-ups”, the stage is set for all kinds of nefariously sweet adventuring.

Celebrating their orphanhood with a glee that only the forever repressed and terminally neglected will understand, the children are shocked to discover their parents have hired a nanny, Linda (Maya Rudolph who brings her trademark warmth, wit and zaniness to the role) who turns out to be, wait for it, a gleefully free and nurturing spirit, who with the addition of a Wonka-like lolly maker in the form of Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews) and orphan baby girl Ruth soon has the kids on their way to the kind of family life none of them ever thought would be theirs.

(image courtesy Netflix)

It is warm, inclusive and wonderful – think of a good thing and Linda the Nanny embodies it in a way that The Matrix-like enforcers of Child Services most assuredly do not (though they do like oatmeal and that can’t be a bad thing) – and it fills up the very heart of The Willoughbys with a happy centre of inspired happiness and outright silliness that will have you smiling like fiend throughout.

The Willoughbys is a very, very clever, thoroughly entertaining film.

Just as it zags in a heartfelt manner that makes you think it’s going to dissolve into conventional animated treacly sweetness (the finale is a masterclass in this respect), it almost immediately zigs, taking the narrative off in ways that amuse and appall but which are always, ALWAYS, a joy to behold.

Helping this dose of hilarity and darkness along is Ricky Gervais as the grimly-observant, wittily-sharp narrator cat and a willingness to run with all of kinds of comedy and dramatic intent, if it serves the purposes of this highly-original tale.

Take the moment they are inspired to send their parents off on their potentially and hopefully life-threatening trip – this scene, in the heart of the wackily busy city centre involves everything from comical misdirection, slapstick, a glorious traffic-centric sight gag, some nuanced characterisation and some raw, desperate humanity that makes it clear that fun and silly though the scene has been, there is some real fear and pain underpinning and infusing it all.

It’s masterful stuff, brought to vivid, eyecatchingly enthralling life by animation so supremely bright and candy-toned, with wattage turned up to a pleasingly-realised eleventy gazillion, and a worldview that is depressing and wondrous, often in the same scene, that you wish you could dive right in, partly to save the kids from the most horrific of circumstances (though really in the end they, helped by Nanny and the Commander manage it all by themselves) but simply to soak yourself in its vivacious flashiness and animated brilliance.

The Willoughbys is a gem, a film that runs with all the postmodern, self-referential gags you expect of a contemporary animated feature without sacrificing its own manic, bleak soul and incisive social commentary in the process, gifting up with 1 1/2 hours of joyous frenetic colour and comic vibrancy that keeps the humanity and rich characterisation front and centre in a wholly unique and gleefully enriching and entertaining way that marks it as an instant classic for the whole (hopefully somewhat functional) family to enjoy.

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