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Willoughbys, The (2020)

It's become a bit of a cliché in children's movies- and in children's literature in general- to feature a tragic fate befalling one- or both- of the central character's parents. Not so for the Willoughby children, whose terrible parents remain stubbornly alive.  But the young Willoughbys- Tim, Jane and the twins (both called Barnaby) are convinced they'd be better off raising themselves. And so they hatch a cunning plan to despatch their selfish folks on a treacherous journey in an effort to "orphan themselves". But getting shot of their parents is only the beginning of their adventure.

The Willoughbys is based on the 2008 children's book from Lois Lowry and directed by Kris Pearn. Pearn and Mark Stanleigh wrote the screenplay, and Rob Lodemeier is credited as co-director. The film is released by Netflix and the animation was produced at BRON Animation in Vancouver, Canada.

The set-up- with scheming kids and ghastly parents- is a pretty big clue that this is not a saccharine, blandly inoffensive kid's movie. Instead, this is firmly rooted in the tradition of the likes of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket, stories told for children that don't condescend and are not afraid to show the darker side of life. This is even acknowledged in the film itself, when James and The Giant Peach gets a nod (the children's plan is inspired by the books they read).

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughbys are indeed truly terrible people. They are so deeply in love that they couldn't care less about anybody else- particularly their own children. They view the four kids as nothing as an annoyance at best and only ever give them attention to boss them about, shout at them, or confine them to the coal bunker.  There's no real explanation for why they have English accents while everybody around them seems to talk with a North American twang but I'll let that one slide. Parents in children's stories tend to be loving and nurturing figures, or dead, or both. So for the Willoughby elders to be so despicable is a refreshing change

All things considered, it's a minor miracle that the children are (relatively) well adjusted. Except for the whole 'potential murderers' thing. Aside from their personality quirks, they act pretty much like all kids. Anyone who grew up around siblings will recognise the truth in their relationship- with the eldest Tim seeing himself as the leader, which often causes friction with more free-spirited younger sister Jane. Their relationship is at the heart of the film, and it ensures that however outlandish their adventure may get, they remain relatable.

This can, in fact, be said equally for the film as a whole. The characters may be very much larger than life and cartoony, but their characterization is strong and believable. It even manages to make a literal food mascot (the owner of a candy factory) seem human.

The film has a sort of timeless quality to it. Were it not for the occasional appearance of a mobile phone or the internet, the story feels like it could take place at any time. The Willoughbys' old-fashioned life-style keeps them away from modern technology and trends, and they only encounter them when they venture outside their house. The script doesn't rely on pop-culture references that will quickly date, but instead mines humour from the characters and visuals.

And what visuals! The movie has a very distinctive look which instantly catches the eyes. The characters are all wonderfully cartoony with strong silhouettes; sharp angles and smooth curves. They look like they could have sprung to life from the pages of a children's storybook, and all have distinctive shapes which mesh together in a pleasing way.

Fittingly for the film's old-fashioned, fairytale feel, the animators use the latest technology to mimic a more traditional style. Both in the design and the animation itself, the CG animation is designed to resemble stop-motion. The characters, sets and props look as if they have been made by hand and exist in the real world. Beautiful use of textures makes the Willoughby's red hair look like wool or yarn or structures look like they have been built out of wood or cardboard. Clouds look like they are made with fluffy cotton wool, while fire is made to look as if crafted out of paper.

The animation uses a variable frame rate and minimal motion blur to give it that slightly jerkier look of traditional stop-motion. The director approached the film as if it were real stop-motion and so it's framed as if shot on real sets, without adding in fancy camera work or unnecessary effects. It does take advantage of the fact that it's CG animated by utilizing looser movement and animation than would be easily achievable in stop-motion. It gives the animation a more knockabout almost Looney Tunes style feel at times.

There are certainly elements of the film that are influenced by 2D animation- the cat, who acts as the narrator looks more hand-drawn than anything else. The overall look of the film ultimately feels like a mash-up of stop-motion and a 1950's UPA aesthetic.

The Willoughbys' world is richly drawn. It's wonderfully designed- the set design is next level- and full of background elements and characters to create an absorbing world and to reward repeat viewing. Supporting characters, extras and animals- like the adorably chubby ducks- are full of the kind of visual inventiveness shown in Pearn's previous film Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2.

It's all backed up by a highly accomplished voice-cast. Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Terry Cruise, Martin Short and Jane Krakowski are all talented comic performers, who are also able to approach the film's more heartfelt moments when needed. Popstar Alessia Cara makes here voice-acting debut here as Jane and does a fine job at holding her own with such a high calibre of co-star. She also gets to show off her impressive pipes, with Jane's habit of singing to herself popping up throughout the film acapella style.

The way that the narrator playfully weaves in and out of the story is a nice touch, and is typical of the film's original approach. Gervais is closer to Gonzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol than any other traditional narrator you can think of.

The film's darker themes mean it might not be appropriate for very young children, but the '12' certificate it seems to have been given in the UK seems a bit harsh. But parents may want to view the film before showing it to their kids, just in case.

Netflix are still relatively new to the animated feature business, but with both this and the wonderful Klaus they've shown that they're willing to fund films that aren't just imitating the likes of Disney and Dreamworks. It's hard to see another major studio (except perhaps LAIKA) having ever made this film, at least in this form. The Willoughbys is a real surprise gem of a film. It's a triumph on a technical and artistic level and we hope it finds the audience it richly deserves.


IN A NUTSHELL: A blend of the classic and the cutting-edge, The Willoughbys feels like an instant classic. Gorgeously animated and masterfully told.