Movie Review – The Willoughbys
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Lois Lowry is an award-winning and celebrated author who’s now in her 80’s. She mainly wrote children’s books and Young Adult novels or works for teenagers. Lowry has won the Newbery Medal twice. The Newbery Medal is a prize given to someone for children’s literature. Since 1922, there haven’t been that many major motion pictures that have been made of Newbery Medal winners. Examples include the recent Dolittle (2020), A Wrinkle in Time (2018), Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), Bridge to Terabithia (2007) and Ella Enchanted (2004). Before the advent of the 21st century, films based on Newbery Medal winners were more scarce. The only notable ones were Sounder (1972) and Old Yeller (1957). Old Yeller wasn’t even a winner. It was merely nominated for a Newbery Medal.
Lowry’s second Newbery Medal went to her 1993 book, which was later adapted into the film The Giver (2014). That film wasn’t too well received at the time. However, that film’s lack of success speaks nothing about the ability of Lowry or her writing, but it not being a blockbuster probably is in part why this film, based on her 2008 book, isn’t another expensive live-action take, although if it were, it’s one that’s more apt for Tim Burton to direct. The animators at Bron Animation, a company formed in 2011, were led by director Kris Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) and Pearn’s team did a fantastic job of realizing Lowry’s book in a way Burton would be proud. Considering if the Academy deems this eligible, it’s currently in the lead for me for Best Animated Feature. It’s certainly the best animated feature I’ve seen since Inside Out (2015).
Ricky Gervais (Extras and The Office) voices a stray cat that looks like a blue-colored British Shorthair, although I think he’s supposed to be a blue tabby. He’s about the color of a blueberry, but he has big yellow-orange eyes. He acts as the narrator of this story. From what I gather, the book didn’t have a cat as the narrator. This seems to be mostly a device injected by Pearn and his team. Gervais though is less narration as he is color commentary. He’s almost like the characters in Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s watching it and riffing on what’s happening with wry wit and jokes. In fact, if one is familiar with Gervais’ form of stand-up comedy, it’s very much akin to do that, but less ribaldry or “blue comedy” from him. He almost exists as the Genie from Aladdin (1992) but not quite.
The character designs of the humans are cute and adorable. In terms of the rest of the animation, it feels as if Pearn was inspired by one particular character in the story or one particular scene and then decided to pattern the whole film after it. At one point, the protagonists here go to a candy factory and meet a veritable candy man, though in no way like the Clive Barker creation or even akin to the Willy Wonka types of the world. Yet, inspired by that character and his place of business and residence, Pearn has made the entire film a colorful confection.
Will Forte (The Last Man on Earth and Saturday Night Live) voices Tim Willoughby, the eldest child of four. He’s the son of a wealthy couple who are notable as being the worst parents, possibly in the world. With comparisons to Mary Poppins (1964), Tim’s parents would be the opposite of George and Winifred Banks. Calling Tim’s parents snobs doesn’t even begin to describe their self-centeredness and quite frankly their child abuse upon Tim and his siblings.
That aside, Tim and his sister, Jane, voiced by Canadian pop star, Alessia Cara, look like walking lollipops. Tim’s younger brothers who are twins, named Barnaby A and Barnaby B, look like walking gumdrops. What leads them to the candy factory is something that could also be described as sugary sweet, but in a moment of gumdrops being devoured, I was reminded of the video game Pac-Man. It’s a visual gag in a film that is filled with a ton. There’s even a gag that was reminiscent of one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). The dainty and almost flamboyant nature in the art direction though has to counterbalance Gervais’ at times acerbic one-liners.
However, what goes down in the plot is something refreshing in terms of how it avoids the treacly feeling of a Pixar film, even though I really did enjoy Inside Out. Of course, it builds to a makeshift family message that a lot of children’s films have embraced. The way it goes about it though felt like it was on a track of its own making that didn’t invoke visions of other well-worn tracks. Leaning into Gervais’ style of humor in a children’s vehicle helps. It culminates in a heartbreaking song “I Choose” by Alessia Cara that resonates the emotional final act and certainly made my eyes a littler watery.
Rated PG for rude humor and some thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.
Available on Netflix.