The Willoughbys offers a sharp, entertaining take on messed-up families

Topics children | family

Apart from an outlandish story and clever writing, the film greatly benefits from its lively cast
Families are necessary for children. Even if parents don’t love their children that much and the whole family thing doesn’t really work for them, at least they provide their children with basics, such as food, shelter and clothing of some kind. Or sometimes not. As Netflix’s animated feature, The Willoughbys, tells us feelingly.

Mr and Mrs Willoughby — or simply Father and Mother — are unnatural parents, veritable abominations, blots on blessed parenthood. Their four adorable children with their rumbling stomachs are only given yesterday’s leftovers to eat. But here’s the thing. The gluttons don’t usually leave any leftovers. When “Skinny Bones” Tim, the oldest child, tries to negotiate with his parents, he is banished to the coal pit in the basement of their grand old house. Jane, the musical prodigy, is not allowed to sing, not even to herself because it disturbs Mother’s knitting (everything disturbs Mother’s knitting), and the tech genius twins, who are both called Barnaby — presumably because the parents couldn’t be bothered to identify them individually — have to share a sweater between them. It’s natural for these well-meaning children to want to kill their parents. Just that they don’t want to get their hands dirty.

So they devise a plan to send their parents on a vacation that they can’t survive. On the itinerary is an active volcano, an acid spring and a sea of piranhas. But the highlight is The Alps in “Sveetzerland”. “He who goes up shall never come down,” they figure.

The Willoughbys is based on Lois Lowry children’s book about siblings. The film version is an exaggerated, dark comedy written and shot completely from the restricted worldview of four loud, cheerful, colourful children who have never stepped out of their house. The parents are so casual in their hatred for their children sometimes that you tend to stop feeling bad for the four. This is when you begin to suspect that these parents are best banished from the face of the earth. You hope that the end of the film does not mean that the ruthless parents are so moved by their children’s innocence that they make amends and the family gets back together. Animation films about children should not have stereotypical feel-good endings. The Willoughbys ends happily, nonetheless, but it does not let you down.


The Netflix Original from  Bron Animation is restricted to bare movements and sharp angles. Wall-E, an obsolete robot in Disney Pixar’s epic animation film was more dexterous than that. But The Willoughbys has an uncanny resemblance to the cult cartoon series Dexter’s Laboratory. Like it, the film greatly relies on its pace and colours for visual pleasure. It is also reminiscent of the Despicable Me series. The twins, Barnabys, are quite like the Minions. And even though there’s that adventure of flying across oceans on a home-made balloon aircraft like in Disney Pixar’s UP, the plot is not as heartfelt.

Apart from an outlandish story and clever writing, the film greatly benefits from its lively cast. Actor Ricky Gervais of The Office (UK) is a lonely cat who narrates the story in a matter-of-fact British accent, like it has seen much worse. The seemingly tragic bits in the plot especially bring out Gervais’ witty delivery. Canadian singer Alessia Cara as Jane always talks in a lively, high-pitched voice of an enthusiastic singer. She sings beautifully, too. Will Forte, whom you might know from his odd-ball sketches on Saturday Night Live or, more recently, from The Last Man on Earth, is earnest in his delivery as Tim.

The Willoughbys may not be the most engaging story, but it offers acute insights into the idea of a perfect-seeming family in a messed-up society while being thoroughly entertaining. That sometimes neither living with biological parents in familiar territory nor being raised in comfortable foster homes may work for children who are perforce separated from their siblings. That even in their ignorance about the outside world, they may not be too naïve to make their own decisions.  And that sometimes no amount of love can fix horrible parents who treat their children like things that crawled out of the garbage. They deserve a vacation that does not end well for them.




Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel