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Movie review: Despite its detailed animation, ‘The Willoughbys’ delivers an uninspiring comedy

(Courtesy of Netflix)

"The Willoughbys"

Directed by Kris Pearn


April 22

By Mark McGreal

April 22, 2020 3:05 p.m.

For children stuck inside during quarantine, “The Willoughbys” is the ideal film – colorful and fast-paced.

For their parents, it may be a mindless animated romp fraught with played-out conventions.

Released April 22 on Netflix, “The Willoughbys” is based on the beloved children’s book written by Lois Lowry and follows the eponymous Willoughby clan, an old-fashioned family living in modern society. But the Willoughby parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) inexplicably hate their four children, repeatedly neglecting and castigating them, even throwing them into a coal bin. Left to their own devices, the four resourceful children create a travel brochure to convince their parents to take a trip – a dangerous odyssey the children hope will kill their parents, thereby orphaning themselves.

Beyond this initial driving plot point, however, “The Willoughbys” design makes the whole film a trip in and of itself. Although made completely with CGI, director Kris Pearn adds a stylized appearance that’s a pretty seamless alternative to classic claymation. The characters’ facial expressions are wonderfully detailed. Their rounded eyes convey a depth of human emotion while the slightest tension in the corner of their mouths manage to say more than words ever could.

[Related: Movie review: ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ designs updated for fans, still runs short on entertainment]

And the humans aren’t even the best looking characters in the film. “The Willoughbys” narrator, The Cat (Ricky Gervais), sports a large body and little legs and is a funny, adorable character who steals the show throughout the film’s 1:32 runtime.

Despite the film’s average length, “The Willoughbys” feels much shorter than it is. Each moment is packed with action and dizzying colors in the hopes of creating an engaging story. While visually exciting, the constant jumping from event to event grows tiresome and the plot is hard to parse out at times as the traditional narrative is sacrificed for a series of entertaining but loosely related events.

And while the characters look impressively human, their characterization is weak. Each Willoughby family member is given one or two traits that regrettably encapsulate all that they are as characters. The Willoughby parents are selfish when dealing with other people while maintaining their love for each other. The oldest brother, Tim Willoughby (Will Forte), aspires to bring honor back to his family’s name and constantly worries, while his younger sister Jane Willoughby (Alessia Cara) sings and dreams about what could be. With only a couple of personality traits to their name, these characters are two-dimensional in every way and they fail to demand sympathy.

The film is further stuffed with conventional tropes that create an easy-viewing film. Comedic gags peppered through the “The Willoughbys” – meant to draw out a cheap laugh – fell flat because of their obvious delivery. In a particularly egregious moment of unoriginality, Jane sings a song at the moment when all hope feels lost. While almost certainly meant to be beautiful and loving, the scene felt sickly sweet and drew a groan when later revealed that the song saved the children’s lives.

The song itself, however, is one of the best parts of the film. Created for the film and performed by Cara, “I Choose” is a ballad honoring the film’s central theme of togetherness. Cara sings it well, emoting beautifully throughout the song, though the lyrics hit the nail on the head a little too obviously. The song will no doubt endure for years to come, unlike the otherwise forgettable film.

[Related: Movie review: ‘Frozen II’ is the next right thing in Disney’s unique approach to princess sequels]

But what hurts the most for “The Willoughbys” is its refusal to tackle the world’s tougher subjects. At one point in the film, the four Willoughby children are split up by the Department of Orphan Services, the film’s version of Child Protective Services. The entire storyline with the agency takes up about 10 minutes of screentime, from the time it is introduced on screen to its last mention in the movie. So while the film could’ve been a commentary on subpar parenting and state resources for neglected children, it turns away from these difficult subjects and instead stays in its lane as an uninspiring comedy.

Even the film’s central message dealing with the importance of family comes across as a rip-off. Family togetherness in the face of tragic circumstances was a theme already thoroughly investigated in Pixar’s “Onward,” which was released earlier this year. Past family films have presented a more nuanced discussion of togetherness than “The Willoughbys,” while the Netflix production is just a colorful mess patched together with barely alive characters.

The film passes as a decent distraction for bored children, but don’t count on “The Willoughbys” to draw people together even at a time like this.

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Mark McGreal
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