Netflix’s “The Willoughbys” is perhaps the textbook definition of style over substance. But, oh my, what style!
The CG film is animated in such a way to mimic the textures and movements of a stop-motion animated film. The titular family’s hair looks like red yarn, the clouds resemble cotton balls and the waves of the ocean seem to be made of broken mylar strips. To contribute to the illusion, the film uses a variable frame rate rather than the standard 24 frames per second to make the characters’ movements stilted and charmingly imperfect.
Because of this, “The Willoughbys” is a simply gorgeous film – daring, unexpected and delightfully tactile. It’s one of the best-looking animated films I’ve seen in years.
If the story was half as daring as the animation, “The Willoughbys” might be something truly special. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but it still manages to be a guaranteed kid pleaser with its own small pleasures for adults.
The story is a lightly Roald Dahl-esque fantasy, based on a 2008 novel by Lois Lowry, which tells of the Willoughby children (voiced by Will Forte, Alessia Cara and Sean Cullen). The Willoughbys, as children often do in these sorts of stories, have a parent problem. Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, committing 110% as they always do) are so madly in love with each other that they don’t have any love left over for their children.
The kids sleep in a coal bin and often go without food for days. Because of this, they hatch a plot to orphan themselves by sending their parents away on a much-needed vacation to the most dangerous places on earth.
The plot probably seems a bit darker on the page than it is on the screen, but the early scenes do have a nice kind of menace to them, heightened nicely by the bone-dry narration of Ricky Gervais as the Willoughbys’ cat.
But my biggest frustration with “The Willoughbys” is how it refuses to commit to that dark tone, and quickly turns in to something akin to a lesser “Despicable Me” or “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” And if “The Willoughbys” doesn’t look like any animated film you’ve seen, the tone is depressingly familiar – a lot of slapstick comedy, quirky characters and jokes that just don’t land if you’re over 12.
This is even more depressing considering that “The Willoughbys” could have been something wickedly fun. Many of the scariest scenes in cinema – Pinocchio turning into a donkey, the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz”, pretty much anything in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”- have come from kid’s movies, and I think kids are more capable of handing the darkness than director/writer Kris Pearn gives them credit for. So, instead of trusting his source material, Pearn plays it safe. But remember: Safe isn’t the same thing as good.
The voice cast is a mixed bag, with the 49-year-old Forte wildly miscast as Tim Willoughby. Cara fares a bit better, but also seems like she was chosen because she has a recognizable name and not because she is particularly well-suited to the role.
At least Short and Krakowski are having a ball, as is Maya Rudolph as the Willoughby kids’ nanny. But given all the funny people in the cast, I expected the jokes to land with more regularity than they did.
As stunning as the animation is, it does beg some questions: Why, for example, would you spend so much time and energy mimicking stop motion and not, you know, actually use stop motion? And why did Pearn feel that this very distinctive art style needed to be used on this particular story?
But the most important question is “Will kids enjoy it?” And, yes, they almost certainly will.
The story, for all its weaknesses, taps into a secret fantasy of children. I imagine every child at some point has fantasized about the freedom that would come without parents and the adventures they could have. “The Willoughbys” indulges that fantasy for a time before reminding kids of the inherent value of having someone who loves and cares for you and will do anything to protect you.
That message is buoyed nicely by some likable characters, kid-friendly chuckles and gorgeous animation. And if “The WIlloughbys” (rated PG for rude humor and thematic elements) won’t hold quite the same appeal for parents – well, that’s what cell phones are for, aren’t they?
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.