Reel Review - The Willoughbys (2020)
It’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory without the charm. It’s The Nightmare Before Christmas without the magic. It’s Tim Burton without the edge. It’s A Series of Unfortunate Events without the impending doom. It’s Mary Poppins without the music. Basically, it’s a movie without a purpose.
Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, The Willoughbys follows four old-fashioned kids who venture out into the harsh world in search of a place to call home.
Or, at least, I believe that is what the premise of this movie is. The intensely rich world and unique and striking visual style does not translate into the writing. It is derivative and almost totally devoid of personality. There are borrowed elements from just about every iconic children’s movie but The Willoughbys forgot to make off with the best elements from its predecessors that made them so special. It’s like knocking off a candy factory and leaving all of the chocolate behind. The result is a mismatched, hodgepodge, disjointed Frankenstein of a movie, stitched together by just enough thread to keep it from falling apart.
Somewhere in all of the mess, however, there is a message on the importance of “found family” even if that message is delivered far too literally and via fistfuls of ham. There was more promise in the story to explore the idea of venturing out from the crib into the real, mean world but that was abandoned and dropped on the audience’s doorstep with same callous disregard as Baby Ruth.
How the writers managed to eke so little story out of a very imaginative world is mind-boggling and it all feels like a missed opportunity for an outré and truly macabre experience—something more akin to what the darkly satirical Into the Woods did to fairy tales.
If you can make it through this film’s muddling, confusing and aimless first act then you might be able to appreciate what it has in store for you later on. The Willoughbys takes thirty minutes to get going and the opening act is drawn out and terribly, unforgivingly unfunny. Fortunately, when the movie does get started somewhere around the forty-minute mark, it manages to find both a purpose and a strained sense of humour that may make you crack a smile.
To the credit of the filmmakers, they did manage to create a visual masterpiece and if you’re content to stare blankly at the screen and let your mind turn to mush then you’ll find no fault with The Willoughbys. Similarly, the voice acting is done well enough—particularly by Will Forte (Tim), Maya Rudolph (Nanny) and Alessia Cara (Jane)—that you can put the movie on in the background to enjoy the occasional ditty without actually having to pay attention to the bumbling storyline.
Surprisingly, however, Ricky Gervais (The Cat) does not make for a very funny narrator which is unfortunate as he is responsible for setting much of the tone throughout this film. Similar to the writing, Gervais just wasn’t able to find enough originality to make his character interesting—imagine The Cheshire Cat from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland… on Xanax.
With so many options for children’s movies now that Disney+ has opened up almost its vaunted catalogue, there isn’t much reason to settle for the meandering acid trip that is The Willoughbys… unless that’s your kind of thing.