The Worst of All Possible Parents
The Willoughbys is streaming on Netflix
Once upon a time, there lived a parent. This parent had the colossal misfortune to be a) alive during a pandemic and b) in charge of children. It was bad enough that the wicked virus forced people to stay inside.* Movie theaters closed. Baseball stadiums were empty. Jobs vanished. People scoffed at the idea of eating at buffets.
As you can imagine, all that time spent inside was incredibly boring for the parent. There were only so many times they could make sourdough bread! But as dull as it was for the parent, it was a thousand times worse for their kids. They couldn’t spend time with their friends, couldn’t shoot bottle rockets at each other. All they could do was read, watch television, and cyberbully weaker classmates.
For the parent, this was intolerable. He (or it could be she) spent several weeks devising activities and attempting to home school their offspring.** She (or it might be he) also vowed to limit their child’s screen time, which was hilarious. In the end, the parent thought, “To hell with it,” let the kids watch TV as long as they wanted, and prayed to a distant God that their children wouldn’t accidentally become radicalized while watching YouTube.
If, like me, you’re in charge of kids during this time of plague, it’s a challenge to find something for them to watch. You don’t want to hear the sounds of Frozen (or Heaven forbid, Frozen 2) for the 367th time. You want something else, something that’s not offensively stupid or a 90-minute ad. Say what you will about Netflix’s original programming, but they’re not doing half bad when it comes to kids’ movies. The most recent is The Willoughbys, a stylish and fun romp that’s also not a snooze for us old folks.
We’re introduced to The Cat (Ricky Gervais), a snide feline who will be acting as our narrator and occasional supporting character. He gives us the history of the magnificent Willoughby family, a clan stuffed to the gills with explorers, adventurers, poets, artists, and all manner of wonderful folk. The only thing exceeding their deeds? Their legendary facial hair.
All families eventually hit a generational speed bump, and the Willoughbys are no different. Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) are notable for only their narcissism. They love each other deeply — and nothing else. You can see how that would be a problem for their children, right?
Said children are Tim (Will Forte), a nervous boy working overtime to protect his siblings, Jane (Alessia Cara), a sharp girl with a lovely singing voice, and the alarming identical twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B (Sean Cullen). In another family, these kids would be happy. Unfortunately, they rolled snake eyes. During Tim’s first day on the planet, he is told, “I’m your father and that sweet woman that you insulted with your rude birth is Mother. If you need love, I beg you, find it elsewhere.”
To put it plainly, this sucks. But it won’t suck for long, as the kids have devised A Plan. This plan consists of sending their parents on a wildly dangerous worldwide vacation. There will be lava, bears, acid pools, and an unclimbable mountain. With luck, the Willoughby children will be orphaned, but the involvement of an orphaned infant, a sweet Nanny (Maya Rudolph), and candy tycoon Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews) complicates matters.
Is The Willoughbys good viewing for kids? Oh, yes. Director Kris Pearn and co-director Rob Lodermeier have made a film that feels like the love child of Wes Anderson and Charles Addams. Bright colors pop off the screen, and strong computer rendering creates distinctive and angular imagery. It bears mentioning that hair textures are fiendishly difficult to create using computer animation. Here, the characters have hair that looks exactly like red yarn. While watching, I could almost feel the fuzz between my fingers. Along with the film being great looking, Pearn and Lodermeier’s pacing is impeccable. There’s not an ounce of fat, and it knows when to zip through a set-piece and when to slow down for a little character development.
Based on the novel by Lois Lowry, the screenplay does something a lot of children’s entertainment fails to do. It tackles some dark concepts, but it does so in a way that’s witty, funny, and relatable. I suspect that screenwriters Pearn and Mark Stanleigh gleaned inspiration from classics such as Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. While we’re dealing with a story in which a group of children attempts to bump off their folks, Pearn and Stanleigh keep the tone light. The neglect from Father and Mother is played broadly, and the ultimate message deals with the necessity of creating your own family. While the script is occasionally slight, it’s sweet without becoming cloying.
Pearn has assembled a team of voice actors that are old pros at this sort of thing. Need a couple of someones to play nitwitted narcissists? You get Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, who knock it out of the park. Need a kind nanny with the tiniest bit of an edge, or a huge candy maker with a sweet interior? Maya Rudolph and Terry Crews can do that sort of thing in their sleep. Nobody breaks out of their comfort zone. They don’t need to, since they show up, do their thing, and do it well.
At some point during this pandemic, you’ll get profoundly tired. Your shoulders will slump, you’ll sigh audibly, and even the most macho of us will think, “Calgon, take me away.” With The Willoughbys, Netflix has given us parents a piece of children’s entertainment that’s a cut above the norm. You’ll appreciate it, until your kids have watched it for the 15th consecutive time.
*Though a small number of people went outside as much as possible and insisted that it was all a conspiracy. These days we refer to them as morons.
**The parent learned a valuable lesson — that teachers work unbelievably hard and deserve far more money. The parent resolved to support educators until they learned that a salary increase would only be possible by raising taxes. “Screw that,” said the parent, and continued to vote for Republicans because they were afraid of socialism.