Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Review: "The Willoughbys"

It's built into the DNA of the modern animated family film that there must be "life lessons" aimed at wee ones. "The Willoughbys" has that, too, though it's buried pretty deep in this tale, based on the book by Lois Lowry, about fractured families.

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are... really terrible parents. And not in a strictly ha-ha, they'll-come-around-in-the-end kinda way. They truly, deeply, madly do not like having children.

Living in virtual isolation inside an old mansion surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers, the Willoughbys (voices of Jane Krakowski and Martin Short) do have lots of love in their hearts -- but only for each other. Their ravishing romance holds no room for any ardor to escape when Tim, their firstborn, suddenly arrives. Same goes for daughter Jane and twin boys, who even have to share the same name, Barnaby (Sean Cullen).

(In the narrative safe space of movies aimed at kids, babies simply arrive unheralded, like the mail or the pest cat, voiced by Ricky Gervais, who also acts as the jaded narrator.)

The kids are basically left to their own devices, meals delivered infrequently as the parents remember to dispose of their leftovers, and any minor transgressions rewarded with confinement to the basement coal bin. This is mostly aimed at Tim (Will Forte), who as the oldest is put in charge of the litter by default.

Mostly the parents stay in their living room, cooing and kissing, and dreaming of a day when the children are gone. Unbeknownst to them, the kids are planning the same thing.

They hatch a plan to lure their parents into taking an extended trip around the world, ending with their demise in trying to climb "the tallest Alp." They're trying to manufacture their own orphanhood.

Alas, the parents did have the foresight to hire a nanny -- albeit the cheapest one possible -- and thus arrives Nanny (Maya Rudolph), a plus-sized bundle of energy. Jane (Alessia Cara), a budding songstress, immediately takes a shine to her, but the boys hatch plans to catapult her out the attic window into the city streets, and thus beyond their ken.

I really liked the look of this film, which is done in CG animation but made to seem like stop-motion, with little hiccups in the way people move. The Willoughbys all have vivid red yarn-like hair, including prodigious mustaches when they reach adulthood -- men and women.

The rest of the populace comes in all sorts of hues and shapes. Later on we meet Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), the fictional mascot of a line of candy the kids are shocked to discover is an actual person, running a massive factory in solitude. He wears a military uniform made of gumdrops and other sugary confections, with a chest the size of a Buick and itty-bitty legs.

This is a fun, bright movie that adults will enjoy as much as children -- an increasingly rare thing you can say these days. Tim, Jane and the Barnabys share a strong bond even as they resign themselves to the fact their parents aren't going to suddenly turn into good people.

"Some people just weren't meant to have children" is not the sort of message you're used to hearing in a children's movie. It has the virtue of being true while also, in this take, quite funny.

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