The Willoughbys

Posted on April 22, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2020
Copyright 2020 Netflix

There are oh so many stories for children about orphans and about people who are sent to live in creepy, mysterious old houses. The Willoughbys, based on the book by Lois Lowry, tweaks those and some of the other conventions of children’s stories, and turns some of them upside down. But one key element remains the same: children have an adventure. They are brave, they solve problems, they stick together, and they end up better off than they started. And all of that happens in a movie that is a a delight for the eyes, with wildly imaginative settings and clever details. There’s even a candy factory that’s half Willy Wonka and half Pac-Man.

Deliciously gruesome (but not quite as much as A Series of Unfortunate Events), it is the story of four red-headed siblings who live in a gothic mansion squeezed between skyscrapers, with acid narration from a nearby cat (Rickey Gervais).

The Willoughbys have lived there for generations and their history hangs heavily over them. Literally. There are huge portraits of ancestors, all sporting the thick yarn hair scowling down at today’s Willoughbys.

Also scowling, when they bother to notice them, are the Willoughby parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski), who devote all of their affection and attention to each other and can barely be bothered to notice that they have children, much less talk to them or feed them. The oldest is Tim (Will Forte, who worked with director Kris Pearns on “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2”). Then there’s his sister Jane who loves to sing (Canadian pop star Alessia Cara). By the time the twin boys were born, the Willoughby parents couldn’t be bothered to think of two names or provide them with two sweaters. So they are both called Barnaby and share one sweater between them.

In a conventional story of an intolerable home, you might expect the children to run away. But this is a story that likes to turn things upside down. Tim likes the house and is determined to uphold the grandeur he associates with the ancestors and the Willoughby name.  He and Jane come up with an idea: their parents should run away from home. So they arrange an extended trip for their parents, a trip that just might include some dangerous activities.

What they don’t expect is that their parents might send a nanny (Maya Rudolph, delightfully whacky).  Never having been treated with kindness, Tim does not trust her at first. Also, there is an orphan baby left on their front stoop. The children drop her off at a candy factory run by a a man who looks a little foreboding but also like he’s made of candy named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews).

And so the Willoughby children end up going on an adventure that is colorful,  funny, exciting, and satisfyingly heartwarming. The government’s child protective services are unnecessarily demonized but the message of resilience that we can create the families we want if nature gets it wrong the first time is very welcome.

Parents should know that this movie includes comic peril and violence (no one hurt) and humorously portrayed child neglect and abandonment themes.

Family discussion:  How do Tim and Jane have different ideas about the way to solve their problems? Did you ever misunderstand someone’s words as Tim did with the nanny?

If you like this, try: “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

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