Film Review: “The Willoughbys”

The Willoughbys” is a heartwarming and hilarious film that takes a progressive look at the true meaning of family.

Warning: spoilers ahead

Based off Lois Lowry’s 2008 children’s novel of the same name, “The Willoughbys” at first glance seems like it would follow a plot similar to “Mary Poppins” or “Nanny McPhee,” where a dysfunctional household is magically fixed through some epiphany from the well-intentioned but ineffective parents. Actually, the movie is much more intricate. When all of its colorful graphics and yarn-like animations are pushed aside, “The Willoughbys” is a tug-of-war between two definitions of family: one based on bloodline, tradition, and honor, and another based on choice, circumstance, and uncertainty. 

At the heart of this conflict are Tim Willoughby (Will Forte) and Jane Willoughby (Alessia Cara), the two eldest children of their hopelessly selfish parents Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski). Despite receiving the brunt of his parents’ punishments, Tim holds the Willoughby family heritage in great esteem, going as far as talking to portraits of his ancestors for advice on how to handle his parents and bring glory back to the family name. Jane, on the other hand, feels much less beholden to her parents. With her parents constantly silencing her singing, Jane seeks an environment where she is loved and supported for who she is. As such, when she and her siblings successfully trick their parents into going on a dangerous world-wide vacation in an attempt to become orphans, she is much more excited about Linda (Maya Rudolph), an eccentric yet loving nanny, joining the household than Tim, who sees the nanny with distrust and as an obstacle to returning the Willoughby house back to its historical success. 

The nanny slowly but surely becomes a stabilizing force in the house, receiving the acceptance of twin brothers Barnaby A and B (Sean Cullen). Over time, even Tim begins to warm up to her. However, this all changes when Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby inform the nanny that they would be selling the house and never returning. Incorrectly assuming the nanny was compliant with his parents’ plans, Tim calls Child Protective Services. The nanny, revealed to be an orphan herself, is devastated and runs away while the four siblings suddenly find themselves separated into different foster homes. Tim is especially distraught as he realizes the reality of life as an orphan is not as glamorous as he once thought. 

The beauty of this film stems from how it does not give a clear answer on what a perfect family is. Under the lax but loving circumstantial guardianship of the nanny, one misunderstanding broke the trust between the family. However, in a heavily regimented and sterile environment under Child Protective Services, life was not as enjoyable,with the exception of the twins, who seemed to adapt better than their older siblings. When push came to shove and the siblings decided to save their travelling parents to prove they weren’t orphans, the movie again remained ambiguous on whether staying together was worth the cost of having terrible parents. These heavy ideas don’t take away from the family-friendliness of the movie, as they are expertly shrouded in a veil of whimsical humor and childish fun. 

Despite the children’s efforts to get their parents back, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby remain conceited as always, rejecting their children’s emotional pleas. Ultimately, it is the Nanny — with the help of a candy factory owner Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews) — who saves the children and takes on the siblings as her own, forging a new, unconventional family. It is this imperfectly perfect ending that makes the usage of yarn imagery throughout the movie clear. Family, like knitting, can get tangled and messy depending on what you start with, but it can be constructed into something that works for you. 

“The Willoughbys” comes at an apt time as everyone is instructed to stay at home. Some lucky people may have a loving, stable, safe home environment to go back to while others may not be so lucky. Don’t blow off “The Willoughbys” as just another kids movie. It is well worth a watch as we all spend time with our families and reflect on what it means to be “home sweet home.”

Grade: A
Release Date: April 22, 2020
Produced by: Netflix from Bron Studios

Image courtesy of The New York Times.

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