22nd April
Seen: 24th April

So, I know right now we’re all a little frazzled thanks to the mild apocalypse we’ve got going on. The people who are probably most in need of a respite from the insanity are the parents of young kids who are just running about without anything to watch since they’ve probably sat through Trolls: World Tour and Onward about 17 times each. Well, let me offer something that might delight them… and might make them work out ways to murder their parents, but they will be quiet for an hour and a half so you can decide if that trade-off is worthwhile.

The Willoughbys focuses on the children of the Willoughby family. Tim (Will Forte), the rational elder child, is constantly being thrown in the coal bin because he dares to want things like food and affection. The middle child, Jane (Alessia Cara) is a little bit more free-spirited, which is impressive considering her spirit should’ve been totally crushed by all the starvation her parent’s cause. Lastly, there’s the twins, both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen) who are weird little inventors who are there because apparently two children just weren’t enough to neglect.

Yes, these four kids are the depressed offspring of Mr and Mrs Willoughby (Martin Short & Jane Krakowski respectively) who are comedically neglectful of their children. Finally, the children have had enough and decide they would be better off as orphans which leads to the start of their wacky scheme to get their neglectful parents to disappear.

The entire film is basically about the concept of the chosen family, an idea that those who are neglected by their own family will end up creating a new one out of necessity. This idea is prominent in the gay culture, if you’re an avid viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which you should be, it’s a terrific program) then you’ll be familiar with this idea as Ru herself has pointed out that “Gay people get to choose our family” and proclaimed that all the people on said show are a family now. 

The Willoughbys takes the chosen family idea and shows just why someone might decide they need a new family. The opening scenes of this film really make it clear just how awful the Willoughby parents are, declaring one of their children’s births as a rude interruption and putting him in the coal bin. That really sets the scene of this strangely dark family film and it really helps sell the message, even though there aren’t as many jokes in it as there could be.

See the problem that The Willoughbys has is that it can’t really nail the tone down and work out how to deliver consistent laughs. There’s certainly laughs there, just nowhere near as many as we need to offset the dark subject matter. Some of the jokes are almost mean, in particular the jokes about how abusive the parents actually are. We’re not laughing with them but laughing in horror because they’re just that awful and sometimes it leads to genuinely great jokes… and sometimes it leads to cringing and going “Oh god, that feels too real” and spoils the fun for a second, until the Ricky Gervais cat narrator comes in and throws out a dry line.

When this film works, it works spectacularly. When the comedy is just right, aided by the beautiful visuals, it’s one of the better-animated films of recent years. It builds the story well, has the kids get the parents to go on this deadly trip and then it kind of loses its way a little. When it gets into the stuff about “Orphan Services”, a broad parody of child services, it almost brushes over the parts about the kids in different families so it can rush to the admittedly clever ending. The middle chunk of this film just doesn’t quite work, at least not narratively. I give them full credit for the ending which is hilarious, touching and disturbingly realistic but that middle chunk is so unfocused that it doesn’t quite stick as well as it should.

For the most part, The Willoughbys is a really good, albeit dark, family movie with a pretty decent message about how family is who you love not who you birthed you. It’s a very well animated film that tries really hard to tell a fairly important story, stumbling a little in the middle only to surprisingly stick the landing better than I thought they would. It’s quite good, and probably the best new family-friendly film we’re going to get for quite a while.

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