The Willoughbys follows a group of siblings with despicable, negligent parents who despise their children. After being pushed too far, the children decide to orphan themselves so they can live freely. What follows is the best CG-animated feature film to come out of 2020. The Willoughby children - Tim, the oldest who wants the Willoughby name to be restored to greatness, Jane, the eccentric middle child with a wild imagination and love for music, and the young Barnaby twins (later named Barnaby A and Barnaby B) who make incredible contraptions - are extremely well written characters with jokes that almost always land. There are running gags such as the Barnaby twins’ slightly creepy demeanors, the children causing traffic jams, and the Willoughby family’s long line of glorious beards, among others, that may or may not have caused my viewing partner and I to both chortle and snort vivaciously. Also, as awful as the parents were, their presence amplifies the comedy - they’re annoying but not toxic to the film. The Nanny and Commander Melanoff - two characters who become important later on - also manage to shine when given screen time.
The animation used in The WIlloughbys is unique due to its blend of CG animation and felt doll aesthetic. Wonderful little details are present, such as the way their hair sits or stands, with strands slightly sticking out here and there or the handling of a scene involving pee. There are also fantastical feats present due to the imagination that the characters in the film possess. A flying machine created by the Barnaby twins and Commander Melanoff’s candy factory are some of the most beautiful and colorful set pieces to come out of any CG film. While there are animated films that exude gorgeousness like Frozen II, there’s a special charm that The Willoughbys holds. Honestly it should fuel animation lovers’ hope for how much room for progress the medium holds, while holding amazement for how far it’s come.
Thematically The Willoughbys may seem a bit simple, yet disturbing at first. These kids have bad parents, so they decide to snuff them out. Simple enough. But looking deeper, there’s a lot to unpack. The film showcases several horrible scenarios to put a child through, with not only the parents, but also the involvement of social services. The feelings of confusion and hurt that come with having parents that not only don’t spend any time with their children, but also not allowing their children to express themselves may very well lead a child to thoughts of harming others or themselves. Once the parents leave for the deadly trip their children planned and the Nanny is sent to look after them, they are rightfully skeptical because they’ve never had any positive experiences with an adult. The things that their distrust leads to are extremely heartbreaking and terrifying. When social services gets involved, as is the case with too many children, the Willoughby children face the prospect of being separated from each other, thus breaking up the happy family they’ve worked so hard to build. While their grand adventure with the Nanny to keep their family together is hilarious, the danger is all too real and may make any viewer familiar with the system suffer from heartache and anxiety. But since this is a children’s film, albeit a (very) dark comedy, don’t expect the worst ending possible.
While The Willoughbys has an incredible musical score, there’s a song that Jane sings throughout that can make a beating heart pound. There are several renditions of Jane’s song that are frequently interrupted or fractionated, but each version gives a glimpse into her psyche. She’s a child dealing with things that some adults don’t even have to deal with, and her songs make it easy to guide the viewer through what each child is feeling to different extents. But when the final version of the song - named "I Choose You" - is performed near the end of the song by the extremely talented Alessia Cara, every over-the-top cartoon character you’ve seen cry will be nothing compared to what you’ll do (in the realm of American animation. Some anime films will absolutely destroy some of you).
The Willoughbys is a love letter to familial love. The film is sweet, it’s cute and it gives what the kids call “all the feels.” If you have a Netflix subscription, please give this one a watch.