The Willoughbys (2020)

“Change is hard.”

I couldn’t help but feel tired and bored by the chaotic, noisy nature of The Willoughbys, a stunningly animated film hamstrung by a one-note script. The movie is mostly about a single thing: forming a family based on mutual love, even if the bloodlines don’t run deep or ever intertwine. That’s a message worth sharing with kids. But the zany story rarely elaborates on that sentiment, lazily relying on sight gags to bombard viewers with havoc instead of heart. The Willoughbys may be a visual delight, but that doesn’t keep the script or Ricky Gervais’ misanthropic narration as a cat from turning this one into a hairball worth coughing up.

To say that the Willoughbys are idiosyncratic would be a gross understatement. Their home, tucked between two towering buildings, pops with color and character amidst a sterile city center. The people living inside are no different. Walking the halls of this once prestigious family name – at least in their own minds – are four kids and two unloving excuses for parents. Father (Martin Short) dotes on the often knitting Mother (Jane Krakowski). They eat alone, giving their kids no mind, and are wrapped up in a blanket of shared selfishness. Maybe that’s what Mother is always knitting away at. As for the children, the youngest are creepy twins, both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen). Jane (Alessia Cara) is the bookish middle child and it shows. Then there’s Tim (Will Forte), the first born, which means he bears the brunt of the blame.

The kids trick their narcissistic and petulant parents into taking a potentially dangerous vacation. Finally, they get to be kids, at least until a nanny (Maya Rudolph) shows up at the front door. Her hair is in the shape of a heart, in case you were wondering whether or not she’s kind to these self-professed orphans. Also featured are robotic social service characters, a big candy maker named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), and a series of unfortunate events unfolds which feel every bit as copied and pasted from the work of Lemony Snicket as that wording should suggest. There doesn’t seem to be a method to or a mind behind the madness.

More than anything, I’d say that The Willoughbys (an adaptation of what some call one of author Lois Lowry’s more inferior children’s books) averages out to be a passable streaming option at best, especially in these quarantined times. It’ll entertain kids but I doubt many will fall in love with it either, and parents will happily save money from not being goaded into emptying their wallets in the toy aisle for plastic versions of these Raggedy Ann/Andy lookalikes. I admired the tactile nature of the animation on display throughout The Willoughbys. How they used digital renderings to paint these eccentric, out of step characters with the look of stop-motion. The style accentuates the material. It’s just too bad that the material of this Roald Dahl wannabe is so obviously counterfeit.

“This is Darwinism at work, isn’t it?”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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