Bad parents (and guardians) in children’s stories are nothing new. In stories like Matilda, Harry Potter, and Hansel and Gretel, protagonists are forced into the so-called “care” of adults whose selfishness and neglect create a pattern of abuse meant to give the protagonists the fortitude and courage to break off on their own. All of this to say that Tim, Jane, and Barnabys A and B Willoughby are in good company when the movie opens.
Our narrator and guide through The Willoughbys (2020, Netflix) is a cat snarkily voiced by Ricky Gervais, who opens the film paraphrasing the Tolstoy line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Willoughby family is unhappy because they have children. Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) Willoughby, who are never given names, love each other to the exclusion of everything else in the entire world, yet the can’t understand where these children keep coming from. The oldest child, Tim (voiced by Will Forte), loves being part of a long and glorious tradition of mustachioed Willoughbys.
Like many children of abuse, Tim is forgiving of his parents and continues to crave their affection even after he’s been thrown into the coal bin (for what we see is not nearly the first time) for committing the crime of asking for food. His siblings, Jane (Alessia Cara) and the twins Barnaby (Seán Cullen), seem either oblivious to their parents’ neglect or simply don’t care. The Willoughby siblings concoct a plan to accidentally-on-purpose get rid of their parents so they can become orphans, tricking Mother and Father into going on a vacation full of potentially lethal adventures. While the parents are gone, the children are put into the care of Nanny (Maya Rudolph), who provides more love and compassion to them than they are prepared to handle. A full-scale comedy of errors ensues wherein the children wind up having to track down their biological parents in order to stay with one another, but the parents would rather leave the children to die on their own.
The Willoughbys is a dark, dark film that can trace its ancestral line back to the original Brothers Grimm with a generous injection of the Roald Dahl school of parenting. The Willoughby children are treated badly. This is not hidden or underscored. They’re shown starving, freezing, being thrown into a cellar, and yelled at for falling into their parents’ line of vision. Tim, Jane, and the Barnabys (who aren’t given the dignity of separate names) are blamed for their own existence as if the parents had nothing to do with bringing them into the world. At one point the parents wish out loud that they could “dispose” of their children. This is not the resentful fulfillment of a child’s most basic needs or even neglect. This is severe child abuse. You never once root for the kids to end up with the parents.
Once the Willoughby children send their parents away, the film dives deep into themes of the psychology of child abuse and found family. Tim, the most abused of the children, finds it difficult to accept Nanny as someone who might love and care for him. He runs away from every foster family he’s sent to live with. He’s internalized his parents’ loathing so deeply that he’s naturally suspicious and angry all the time.
Jane is either optimistic and brave, or incredibly naive and oblivious. She charges ahead no matter the danger, she immediately bonds with Nanny, and she sings to her siblings even at the point of death.
The Barnabys are typical cartoon identical twins: they finish each other’s sentences and share each other’s thoughts. They are the quiet geniuses of the group, the brains and brawn to Tim’s big emotions and Jane’s exuberance. It isn’t until the siblings are separated that they realize how much they need each other.
Found family is a theme that runs through many stories of neglected and abused children; Harry Potter finds his “family” at Hogwarts, and Matilda finds hers with Miss Honey. The Willoughby children find new parents in Nanny and a candy maker named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews). Nanny and Commander Melanoff don’t start as a couple, but they have a darling “meet-cute” when she attempts to “rescue” an orphaned baby in Melanoff’s care. As we learn during the film, Nanny was once an orphan herself and her real name is Linda. She knows first-hand what Orphan Services (the film’s Child Protective Services) is like: “Imagine putting a puppy in a cage,” she tells Melanoff, a line scarily relevant to recent U.S. immigration policies. Her experience has made her full of loving compassion for children, especially orphans or children from abusive homes. Melanoff has lived alone for so long that he’s desperate for any company he can dote upon and care for. They are the exact opposites of Mother and Father Willoughby, and they’re exactly what those poor children deserve.
The Willoughbys does an excellent job of incorporating a wide range of diversity. Maya Rudolph and Terry Crews lend their voice talents to two characters of color (well, Melanoff is sort of dark pinkish-purple). Tim is seen placed in the homes of different types of families: a mom and a dad; two dads; a single mom with a rainbow collection of foster children. Jane spends some time in a home that appears to have several parents in a happy polyamorous relationship.
By the end of the movie, the family is brought together, not by last name or mustache-growing ability, but by their love and respect for one another. The new parents are two people of color with five adopted children (including the ethnically ambiguous baby). As the cat says at the end, they are a “perfectly imperfect” family. Aren’t those the best kind?
For another Incluvie review of this movie, see Sarah Erskine’s Adorable Parricide for Kids! Netflix’s “The Willoughbys”.