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Something I’m noticing that I would argue started back in 2015 with the release of Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie film, is the fact that bigger studios are starting to slowly move into being more experimental and creative with the visuals and usage of CGI animation. While I think CGI animation gets a bad rep due to how overwhelming it is, and I, of course, would love to see more 2D animated features from the bigger studios, getting more ambitious with CGI visuals is a good direction to go into. Think about it, we had the already mentioned The Peanuts Movie, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, 2018 gave us Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Disney/Pixar are doing more creative visuals in their shorts. We also have this year’s Connected from Sony Pictures Animation, and I think that’s pretty healthy. I have said in the past that studios and films need to have their distinct flavor and look, and the major studios are only now catching on what the indie/foreign scene has been doing for the better half of a decade or more. Unless the execution is off, I don’t see why more studios can’t experiment a little more. Heck, that’s why I adored Netflix’s newest animated feature, The Willoughbys.
Directed by Kris Pearn, co-directed by Rob Lodermeier, and written by both Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh, The Willoughbys is yet another film on Netflix’s streak of original animated projects! It’s produced and animated by Bron Animation, the same studio that did the unfortunately disappointing Henchmen film. So, how did Netflix’s next step into animation go? I say grow your beefiest mustache and let’s get to it!
The story follows the four Willoughby children, Tim, voiced by Will Forte, Jane, voiced by Alessia Cara, and Barnaby A and Barnaby B, voiced by Sean Cullens. They are part of a famous family with a prolific legacy of adventurers, inventors, and so on. Unfortunately, the Willoughby children are the kids to the current Willoughby adults, Father, voiced by Martin Short, and Mother, voiced by Jane Krakowski. The two adults are neglectful of their kids to the point that when the children find an abandoned baby, they get kicked out of the house. The children then come up with a plan to “orphan” themselves by getting rid of their parents. They send the terrible duo on an epic adventure that has multiple areas that may result in them six feet underground. Along the way, the children will encounter other adult individuals, like Linda the nanny, voiced by Maya Rudolph, and the candymaker Commander Melanoff, voiced by Terry Crews. Can the children get rid of their parents? Or will they find their true family elsewhere?
Let’s cut to the chase, and talk about the first thing that stands out about this film, the animation. For those that are curious, it’s using CGI, but everything is crafted and animated like it’s stop-motion. I know some have an issue with this for some unknown reason, but to me, it’s smart for CGI animation to start experimenting with how they tackle visuals. A lot of animation fans complain about how most CGI films look the same, so why not go out of your way to look distinct? It has a style that makes it stand out, and it looks gorgeous. There are so so many bright colors and fantastic designs that make the world the film takes place in pop. You can even see it in the trailer that the colors are vibrant, and it might be very candy-coated colors, but man, do I love it. They even match the snappy stop-motion movements of the style it’s imitating. It looks good and while it is fast-paced, the humor and movements are not fast enough to be missed or are too overbearing.
Now, as for the story, while this film is not meant to be taken seriously, it does balance out the quirk with the more serious themes that it’s tackling. Sure, the major moral of the film is that family is what you make of it, and it’s a nice theme, but the film doesn’t excuse the fact that the parents in the film, while dialed to 11, are awful. Unlike most films, this one doesn’t try to redeem or sideline the parents. They are terrible, and the film constantly paints them in a negative light. Martin Short and Jane Krakowski do put in some very funny performances, but they are incredibly neglectful of the kids in the film. Luckily, the rest of the characters constantly mention it. The kids themselves also have great chemistry and distinct personalities that feel fairly grounded. Yes, this world is wacky and colorful, but you get why the kids act as they do. I know they are mostly played by adults, but for a comedy like this to work, I don’t know if I would run the risk of using child actors. Plus, the cast works well off of one another. Will Forte, Sean Cullen, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Terry Crews, Maya Rudolph, and Alessia Cara all put in charming performances. However, I will say that the film’s marketing is a touch misleading, as the main character is not Jane. In fact, the main character of the film, and who gets the most fulfilling character arc is Tim.
For as much as I adore this dark comedy family feature, I have three issues with the film. The first criticism I have is that the absurd elements sometimes clash with the pacing of the more traditional story bits. Not in a distracting way, but it’s noticeable when the film has to halt the breaks on the absurdity for the story to hit certain beats. It’s not that the more story-focused beats are bad, but they are just story bits that you have seen before. The second issue I have is with the original song and the placement of it. I get that Netflix wants to get a chance to be nominated for an original song at something like the Oscars and such, but it felt like it was somewhat forced into the last third of the film. I bring this up because the film, as I have mentioned, does market Jane as the lead when she is not, and while the song is pretty solid, it was distracting. It’s a double-edged sword for the film, since you know why it’s there but still may not care for it. Finally, I did not like Ricky Gervais as the cat narrator. Yes, the cat does have a few great lines, but I think Gervais was miscast, and I do mean that without also admitting that I do not like him as a comedian or actor. The cat needed to be played by someone else, as I was thinking of maybe someone like Matt Lucas or Eddie Izzard. The character needed someone with a bit more energy and goodwill associated with them.
While rough around the edges in some areas, The Willoughbys is a new Netflix hit that I think everyone should check out. I understand, if respectfully disagree, with some of the more negative reviews of the film, but I get why this film might not be for everyone. It’s a film that’s abstract and out there, and you are either for it or not. I simply hope one day, Netflix puts this film on Blu-ray alongside their other original animated features, so I can own them physically. So, we shall now move on from quirky family film to a film based on a video game that’s unintentionally a backdoor pilot for sequels. That’s right, next time, we are going to look at Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge.
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Rating: Go See It!