‘The Willoughbys’ are stuck at home until love sets them free

Tim, left, the Barnabys and Jane in a scene from “The Willoughbys.” Netflix/TNS

“The Willoughbys” is a family-friendly dark comedy about being stuck in a box with your family.

Directed by “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatball 2”’s Kris Pearn, this animated adaptation of Lois Lowry’s children’s book centers on siblings Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and a set of twins both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen). They’re kids who’ve spent their entire lives in their old-fashioned home, saddled with an old-fashioned family legacy, with parents who see them as nothing more than an inconvenience.

“The thing that really immediately appealed to me (about the book) was just how Lois Lowry was subverting and playing with the tropes of children’s literature,” Pearn, who also cowrote the script, said during a recent phone call. “I love stories that celebrate the independence of kids.”

The second animated feature produced by Netflix, following last year’s Academy Award-nominated “Klaus,” “The Willoughbys” focuses on these children as they come to realize how their lives would be better if they could just figure out a way to send their parents away permanently.

“One of the things that always felt funny from the book was this idea that these kids try to have a coming-of-age story by staying home,” said Pearn. So “we gave ourselves permission to own the fact that (the characters are) in a box. They’re in a series of boxes, and the movie’s about challenging your box in a lot of ways.”

It’s a story that might appear to be too on the nose in these times where much of the country remains at home in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the movie, which Pearn describes having pitched as a “Grey Gardens” meets “Arrested Development” for kids, invites its audience to root for the young Willoughbys to break free without advocating that any children attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Although it is played for laughs, “The Willoughbys” does not hide or excuse the parents’ negative behavior in any way. It rightfully calls out their neglect as abuse, and the filmmaker admits it was a tricky line to toe.

“It’s a bit of a cautionary tale for the kids,” said Pearn. “How do you break a cycle of destructive behavior? We needed (the parents) to be there to represent that challenge for Tim and Jane and the Barnabys.”

Because their parents are so terrible, 14-year-old eldest sibling Tim clings to the great legacy of the Willoughbys, whereas Jane, who is 12, dreams of the world outside.

“Tim is serving this idea of what it means to be a Willoughby and what it means to be in this old fashioned family,” said Pearn. “He’s trying to be a grown-up, but he doesn’t have the tools, he doesn’t have the skill. He’s never really been parented himself. How does he have models to know how to do it right?”

While Tim represents the ideals of the Willoughby past, Jane represents the Willoughby future, with the Barnabys — who are more concerned about the here and now — bouncing among them. They each want something better for all of them, but they have trouble seeing eye to eye.

“Jane is this optimistic character that has a hard time taking responsibility for things,” said Pearn. “There’s this hopefulness and this undying optimism that is in denial of the situation. And then in moments where you see her a bit self-aware, she immediately pulls at the heart, because you really want this kid to escape.”

“She definitely pushes her siblings to go on adventures and excursions that they normally wouldn’t go on if it weren’t for her influence,” said Grammy Award-winner Cara, who makes her acting debut as the voice of Jane.

Over the course of the movie, “she just becomes so much more confident in herself and her singing, which is something she’s told she couldn’t do for so long,” said Cara. “She finally breaks out of her shell.”

Helping Jane and her brothers break out of their boxes and comfort zones is Nanny (Maya Rudolph), who bursts into their home with optimism and unconditional acceptance. Essentially a walking hug, she is the first adult to ever show the Willoughby kids that they deserve to be cared for.

Although Nanny “always represented this idea of the fullness of love,” according to Pearn, she was initially imagined as a character that was more a joke.

But “that became something we were really struggling to find a home for,” said Pearn. “Talking to Maya ... she calls her son ‘Skinny Bones’ (the nickname Nanny gives Tim), and that just sort of felt warm and affectionate to me. So we tried a version where we played it straight, and all of a sudden, everything started to work.”

Not all of the Willoughbys take to Nanny immediately, of course. But it’s only after meeting her that they’re able to start figuring out the difference between the family people are born into and the family people choose.

For Pearn, it was important that the movie make it clear that the Willoughbys choose love. Being a Willoughby is what connects them, but it’s not necessarily what makes them a family.

“By the end of the movie, I really wanted to make sure that Jane, Tim and the Barnabys, they actively choose each other,” said Pearn. “That love that’s an obligation (from being related) ... pivots to being a choice.”

The song that Jane pieces together throughout the movie is called “I Choose.” And for Cara, this theme is key, because “not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up in a quote-unquote, ‘typical’ family.”

“It’s important for kids or anyone to know that family can be people you choose,” she added. “Finding family in friendships and finding family through passions that you have — it’s just where you feel the safest. It doesn’t always have to look like everybody else’s version of family.”

Tribune Wire

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