If no other animated film is released this year, that means that the best animated film of 2020 will likely be “The Willoughbys”, a quirky, stylized animated adventure with as hard of an edge as a family animated adventure can have. That isn’t a slight though, as it is a worthy recipient of such praise.
With voice work from Will Forte (“The Last Man on Earth,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”), musician Alessia Cara, Maya Rudolph (“Bridesmaids,” “Big Hero 6”), Martin Short (“Three Amigos,” “Father of the Bride”), Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Terry Crews (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Idiocracy”), and narrated by Rickey Gervais (“The Office,” “Night at the Museum”), there’s a very cartoony spirit throughout the entire world of the film. Each character has a distinct personality and their actors do great jobs inhabiting the roles, preventing it from coming off like a “star studded” celebrity affair. The weakest link is likely Gervais, only because his narration doesn’t really feel necessary, but it doesn’t take away from the film as a whole.
Yarn for hair, wispy cottony clouds and a deliberately stop-motion-esque pace lend the visual style of “Willoughbys” one of its most endearing aspects. It truly lends the world a fairy tale kind of quality, which further enhances the dark edge given to the direction of the plot.
Most of the jokes are quite on the nose when it comes to poking fun at “traditional” families and values. An extended sequence focused around an open house is particularly amusing and is a perfect encapsulation of how the filmmakers juxtapose the Willoughbys against the rest of the world.
Writer/Director Kris Pearn (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”) and writer Mark Stanleigh have supervised animation and done storyboarding for most of their careers, which really shows in the way the film presents humor. In a way most comparable to “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” there is a very deliberate focus on visual humor. While there are written jokes, most of the humor is in the way characters move, react and the way it’s all animated. This is yet another animated film that understands that its style can be as inventive as the writing.
The easiest recipients of this adventure are likely to be those raised on “Invader Zim” or “The LEGO Movie” due to how the film’s edge works. It's not shy about throwing its characters down and letting utter despair wash over them and the audience. While most of it is candy colored, it feels gradual; things only become sweet and colorful once the Willoughbys' outlook has turned that way as well.
In its most surprising feat, this is also a film that leaves you wanting more. At a tight 90-minute runtime, the world and characters are so delightful and likable that it easily leaves the possibility open for a follow up film or television series.
While there’s nothing groundbreaking about it, this is another in a long line of animated films that shows that Hollywood is clearly opening up to more experimentation in its animation and storytelling. This is an extremely well executed adventure into an oddball family, backed up by a very tight script and wordplay and a wonderful sense of humor. It's easy to watch and enjoy, and most surprisingly of all, how much you’re willing to come back for more. 4.5/5