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The Willoughbys – Movie Review

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The Willoughbys – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Netflix

There is something strangely appealing about stories that mix childlike fantasy with macabre humour. It’s why Roald Dahl’s books continue to resonate with readers, young and old. The Willoughbys brings us a colourful world with dark themes and wicked comedy. Director/co-writer Kris Pearn and his team of artists have created an imaginative visual palette and play with the rules of computer animation, not unlike what he accomplished with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. This film is constantly moving and while it throws a lot of plotlines at the viewer, there remains a likeability and a rooting interest for the Willoughby children to win in the end.

The narration by Ricky Gervais sets the tone for the entire movie. His cat serves as the Greek chorus, taking us into the life of the Willoughbys and providing the needed context. He also delivers some funny lines that prove Pearn and his co-writer Mark Stanleigh were willing to bring the needed edge to this story. The scenes of the Willoughbys interacting with their uncaring parents are hilarious in how absurd they are, while also making us sympathise with these children. The dynamic between Tim and Jane works tremendously well, as we see their differing attitudes towards their parents, one fearful and the other cheeky.

Craig Kellman’s character designs are also a needed ingredient, with each character looking unique and often the center of our attention. The Willoughbys’ hair made to look like yarn is a particularly clever touch. The animation resembles stop-motion, which is a wonderful stylistic choice that allows the film to stand apart from other computer animated movies. As the technology grows, it’s great to see more filmmakers experimenting with what these tools can do. There are a number of major set-pieces in The Willoughbys and all feel different. There’s a wild chase through a candy factory that has fun with all of the various camera angles. Meanwhile, a sequence where the children try to stop people from buying their house creates all sorts of humourous cartoon gags.

The fast pace of The Willoughbys keeps one’s attention through the runtime, although the film seems to want to tell many stories at once. As soon as one has gotten used to a plotline, the movie throws in another. At the start, it seems the movie will center on the children dealing with their abusive parents. Then a baby is thrown into the mix and that takes precedent. Then the children send their parents on a vacation, which leads to another plot point. That’s a lot to take in, although the film remains charming and funny. If Netflix is satisfied with the viewing numbers on The Willoughbys, it would be neat to see them greenlight a half-hour series. This story and these characters would be well suited for one.

The Willoughbys delivers the needed laughs, even with its fairly dark storyline of children trying to get rid of their parents. However, there is also a heartwarming element as we see the bond between these children as well as a kindly nanny and a Willy Wonka-esque candy maker who enter their lives. The visual invention of this film is wonderful, especially seeing how the characters move and play around with their surroundings. There is so much going on in the movie, one might even need multiple viewings to take everything in. With both The Willoughbys and recently Klaus, it’s good to see Netflix investing in these clever animated films that seek to reinvent the wheel of what the artform can look like.

Stefan Ellison

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