Directed by Kris Pearn (co-directed by Rob Lodermeier) and co-written with Mark Stanleigh, based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry. Convinced they’d be better off raising themselves, the Willoughby children hatch a sneaky plan to send their selfish parents on vacation. The siblings then embark on their own high-flying adventure to find the true meaning of family. Voiced by: Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews, Alessia Cara, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Seán Cullen and Ricky Gervais.
Films about orphans are not new to the children’s genre with characters like Mowgli, Lilo or Oliver Twist but it’s rare that the children choose to be orphans, although judging by how terrible people the Willoughby seniors are, it’s not a surprise. It takes very little time to discover that the Willoughby children are entirely neglected so when they come up with a plan to send their parents off on high risk, dangerous activity holidays in the hopes that they’ll become orphans, they’re undeniably justified. However, what they didn’t count on is their parents hiring a nanny, and her being one that actually tries to take care of them, a foreign concept to these children. Immediately going in, it has a little bit of darkness to it, the Victorian style house, the antique paintings of their dead ancestors but it perfectly balances it out with the gigantic moustaches and the fact that hair seems to come grow in a knitted fashion in their family, it sets a perfect tone for what’s to come.
The best thing that The Willoughbys has to offer is its imagination and ingenuity, the children come to you as if by way of the Baudelaires and the Addams, they’re odd but inventive, independent and determined. It’s exactly the type of content needed for films aimed at children, to spur on their imagination: to want to create things, explore and learn, rather than the flimsy, one note comedies that keep appearing. As well as hitting the target on its tone, it fits in all the right combinations of deserving to be loved and that you don’t have to be related by blood to be family. The writing is well done, there’s a few nice nods in there for the adults watching, references to Se7en, Pacman, Home Alone and more. It presents a story that doesn’t just go from point A to B, it’s actually an adventure, whereas many of its genre just claim to be, there’s actually plenty going on in this film to keep you invested and entertained.
Stop-motion is a relentlessly enjoyable medium to watch and interestingly with this film, it comes across feeling almost digital, it keeps its old-fashioned and handmade charm while feeling modern and fresh. There’s little to actually nothing to complain about visually, it has a great personality to it, it feels familiar yet different enough to set it apart, it almost feels like something Laika would have liked to pick up, if it had been a tad darker or quirkier. It’s perhaps a tad strange that though the oldest of the children is maybe fourteen years old, the youngest actor playing one of them is twenty three, although it is a decision that makes sense given that there’s a lot involved and it would have been a risk to put it on the shoulders of a child actor. Of course, the actors that they did use were a particularly safe bet, leading with Forte whose comedy background is beyond established, the beloved Rudolph, fan favourite Crews, the legendary Short, ever hilarious Krakowski and the dependably sarcastic Gervais. Gervais does what he does best here, his consistent narration throughout is quite possibly the strongest vein of comedy within the film, he has a great personality to his voice and uses it to the fullest extent.
The Willoughbys gives audiences exactly the type of film that they should have gotten with the animated reboot of The Addams Family, it’s got a great streak of darkness mixed with creativity and a visually pleasing style. It has that ideal tone of hitting all the right moral lessons but getting to them through a fun and messy journey, it has a great personality and despite the overall style feeling nicely familiar, it has enough individuality to offer. It’s surprising this almost Roald Dahl style story wasn’t adapted previously but hopefully in spite of the usual Netflix barrage of content, this one won’t get lost because it’s prised to give the whole family something to enjoy.