Kris Pearns’ The Willoughbys is a deranged, non-stop, loveable tale about what it means to be a family. It’s a story that we have heard thousands of times, but hardly ever this silly, and never once this fun. It is an adaptation of a Louis Lowry novel of the same name (yes, the one who wrote “Number the Stars” and “The Giver”). Before we dive into what makes this film a special ride, here is a recap:
Timothy Willoughby is proud of his family name. They have a history of being brave heroes and scientific innovators. It must have skipped his parents’ generation however, because they abuse and neglect Timothy and his siblings, Jane and the Barnabys– the twins with the same name. When the kids happen upon an orphan child and find it a home at the city’s candy factory, Melanoff’s, they hatch a plan to orphan themselves so that they can find a better home.
They send their family on a deadly adventure through fiery volcanoes and over unclimbable mountains. However, a nanny comes and foils their plan. After treating them to a good time, the kids warm up to it until the nanny receives a message from the childrens’ parents that they are selling the house. Timothy misinterprets the nanny’s response and calls child protective services to have them taken away. The siblings are separated from one another for several weeks until the nanny decides to intervene and bring the children together again.
Once out of the hands of their respective foster homes, the children decide to try to get their parents back from their deadly adventure, flying just the four of them to the dangerous swiss mountain that their parents were stranded on. After finding them, the children propose that they become a loving family once and for all. Their parents decline and run away, leaving their children stranded. They nearly freeze, but at the last moment the nanny and Melanoff and the orphan come to save them and all become a happy family themselves at the candy factory.
If you read that and haven’t seen the film, I am sorry. Even having glazed over several circuitous details, the plot is a wild twisting road that leaves you absolutely dizzy by the end. The strangest thing about this is that it is done with exceptional grace. The writing is solid, and despite the pervasive silliness of their situation, it is compelling and raucously funny.
Kris Pearns doesn’t have very many successes under his belt, having only directed two feature films before this, both animated. His particular brand of writing carries over in this picture, but succeeds in a way his movies didn’t before. Among the Netflix original lineups this leads the animated features.
The animation itself is very akin to The Addams Family (2019), Bron Animation studios having produced both. Character designer Craig Kellman’s work is easily recognizable and fits particularly well in this universe– a huge step up from the incredibly ugly protagonists in The Addams Family.
The visual style recalls beloved tropes of 2D animated films and even still cartoons– a welcome addition to cinema that began with Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They mix this kind of movement masterfully with a stop-motion type texturization of things like hair and smoke being modeled like thread and cotton. Every bit of the motion and environment is effective.
I’ll call back to my mention of the comedy, because this film really pulls it together in that regard. It is extremely (and surprisingly) funny. Oftentimes, these films appeal to a specific demographic and sneak a few enjoyable moments for everyone else to keep them interested. The Willoughbys on the other hand consistently has something for everybody. Several great jokes are written throughout, but the greatest moments of humor come from the masterful body-comedy. The characters move in such a zany, hilarious way that will keep children entertained, and adults with their eyebrows raised and mouths agape.