It seems strange to call something so colorful and vibrant in its visual palette a dark comedy, but that's exactly what The Willoughbys is. While Netflix's new animated film may not have the grotesque visuals and twisted humor of something like Fargo or In Bruges, there's an edge here that isn't at all expected from something that looks as playful as this. That may sound off-putting to some parents, but it should instead be embraced, as that darkness works in its favor, helping make The Willoughbys so much more than most of the children's movies these days. It's a damn delight, through and through.
The Willoughbys is based on the children's book of the same name by Lois Lowry. As the title suggests, it follows the Willoughby family, but they're far from a happy or cohesive unit achieving their American dream. The mother and father of the family are completely obsessed with each other, creating four children accidentally, with no plans to actually offer them any love or affection. They simply ignore their kids, allowing them to only eat their leftovers and throw them in the coal room of their very not-kid-friendly house when they require too much attention. After much deliberation, Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and the Barnaby Twins (Sean Cullen) decide to send their parents away on a fake vacation to the most dangerous destinations on Earth, in the hopes that the couple will perish at some point along the way. What the kids don't expect, however, is for their parents to leave behind a nanny (Maya Rudolph) to watch them.
So many family films focus on the strength and unbreakable bond that can only be shared by family, even if that family is an unconventional one. Pixar's Onward, released just this year, is a great example of that, showing that a love between brothers can be just as important as the love of a parent. The Willoughbys takes that sort of notion a few steps further, throwing out the traditional concept of family entirely. This movie is all about the family you choose and how that can be even more important than the one you're born into.
These kids create a plot to murder their actual parents because they believe they'll be better off. That's an insane premise for a movie that features a talking cat (more on that in a minute) and mustaches made of yarn, but it works because of Rudolph's Nanny, who embraces the kids as they are, wholly loving them without a single condition. She may look different than they do, but that doesn't change the fact that she consciously chooses to love them, each and every day.
It's a really fun flip on the classic Disney model of wonderful parents who died or went away, leaving their children to grow up with a terrible replacement. These parents are so insufferable that the children attempt to kill them, only to find real love from the adoptive figure that replaces them. If there was ever a great PSA about the beauty of adoption, this is it. The Willoughbys understands so well the value of love as an intentional choice, rather than just a funny feeling.
This sounds like a highly emotional movie, and it can be in certain moments, but there's a levity to it all that introduces laughter alongside the pain of these characters. The push and pull of ideologies between Tim and Jane makes for a few good laughs (fueled by great performances from Forte and Cara), and the two Barnabys are an absolute riot each and every time they're on screen. But it's the film's narrator, a chunky blue cat voiced by Ricky Gervais, that makes The Willoughbys a great dark comedy. From a distance, Gervais pokes and prods at the issues going on amongst the family in a way only he could, making you laugh at misfortune when you really don't think you should. It's perhaps the single best use of Gervais since The Office.
Director Kris Pearn and his team do a fantastic job balancing all of the demented absurdity in this film with a visual display that never once feels dark. The animation itself is stunning, somewhere between early Laika and Despicable Me, and it works so nicely alongside the seemingly endless color scheme and art supply textures. The whole landscape of the animation feels like it was plucked straight from a child's imagination, only to be refined by a seasoned animation veteran without losing any of its creative integrity.
The Willoughbys is one-of-a-kind. It chooses to color outside the lines and zig when more traditional projects are told to zag. It's not the funniest family film you've ever seen, nor is it the saddest or most profound, but it is honest, caring, and delightfully dark from start to finish, a refreshing adventure at a time when it's most desperately needed.0comments
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Willoughbys premieres on Netflix on April 22nd.