“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin … this isn’t the film for you, okay?”
Netflix’s newest animated feature is here! Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph and Abbi Jacobson lead the voice cast of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, the story of a family’s vacation which gets overtaken by, yup, machines. The movie has proven to be an unstoppable winner right out of the gate thanks to its story and especially its acting talents; not least of all Rudolph, who adds another memorable character to her repertoire.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines reaffirms how much of an undervalued treasure Rudolph is, especially when it comes to crafting unique characters. Whether it’s Deborah in Popstar, Rita in Idiocracy or just showing up to belt out a stomping rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in A Very Murray Christmas, it’s always a pleasure to see (or hear) Rudolph. In fact the last time we got to hear Rudolph, it was when she voiced the hugely lovable character of Nanny in Netflix’s previous rather bold animated family comedy, The Willoughbys.
Narrated by the neighborhood cat (Ricky Gervais), the movie tells the story of the Willoughby children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and twins Barnaby and Barnaby (Sean Cullen), the latest in a long line of red-haired aristocrats whose awful, self-adoring parents (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) barely notice them. When they do notice them, the result is usually disgust and neglect. Fed up with the way they’re being treated, the four of them decide to orphan themselves by sending their parents on an adventurous vacation in the hopes that they never return. Things change suddenly, however, with the appearance of the lively Nanny (Rudolph) and a candy maker named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews).
Right off the bat, the element which sticks out the most in The Willoughbys is the marvelous production and character design, both of which make the whole experience feel like a pop-up book that’s just bounced off the page. There’s just no slouching whatsoever on the look of this movie. Adapted from the bestselling children’s book from acclaimed author Lois Lowry, every aspect of The Willoughbys holds onto it’s kid lit roots. Kyle McQueen’s work on the city landscape feels like a mix of the timeless and the larger than life, while the Willoughby’s home feels plucked from the kind of classic children’s book illustrations that can’t help but bring about fond memories. This naturally extends to the characters themselves, all of whom Craig Kellman has drawn with features which miraculously inhabit undeniable features of the actors themselves all the while accentuating other features to drive home traits about who the character is.
What sets The Willoughbys apart from other children’s animated features of its ilk, is its unmistakably dark tone. The text and concept may be Lowry’s but it could also be straight from the world of Roald Dahl. There’s a harshness to the film which is never shied away from. The Willoughby children are only allowed yesterday’s food, the twins are forced to share one sweater between them and as punishment, their parents repeatedly toss them into the coal room for however long they feel like is appropriate (or until they remember). It’s rather disturbing and would remain so were it not for the movie’s laughs, which come courtesy of the general oddness of the Barnabys, the endless amount of quips by our feline narrator and especially in the overall presence of Nanny. When the character shows up, she unleashes a wave of exuberance and joy, but also the sort of compassion the Willoughby children have been lacking. It’s here where we encounter the film’s core mission of challenging the concept of a perfect family and how the reality of such an idea doesn’t necessarily adhere to any one image or notion other than love.
The voice cast is astounding. Rudolph unsurprisingly makes Nanny her own and gives the right kind of buoyant energy to make her stand out. Crews is unsurprisingly hilarious, Short and Krakowski add the right kind of silliness to keep their self-absorbed characters from being truly evil and Gervais is at his best as the narrator cat, telling the Willoughby’s story with his trademark acerbic humor. Finally, Forte, Cara and Cullen are pitch perfect as the titular siblings, exuding a bond and a shorthand with each other that sells them as true Willoughbys.
Released in April of 2020 when the world was settling into Covid-19 lockdown, The Willoughbys was the kind of movie that was needed at that specific time. A year later, its mixture of grimness and whimsy, along with the idea of clinging to those you love remains just as important. Although the film is consistently funny throughout, it never panders or talks down to its young audience. This is a film which skirts traditional cliches, yet never sacrifices honesty for the sake of a good gag. It’s illustrations of family bonds, courage and sacrifice make the movie an incredibly rewarding experience beyond its stunning visuals. While it may not be a family classic at the moment, its time will surely come.