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Western Animation / The Willoughbys

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The Willoughbys is an American computer-animated Black Comedy film directed by Kris Pearn, and based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry. The film is about four siblings who have had enough of their terrible parents neglecting them, so they send them away on a potentially life-threatening vacation only to end up in the care of an eccentric nanny, and must hide away from the draconian Orphan Services.

The film stars the voices of Will Forte, Martin Short, Alessia Cara, Maya Rudolph, Ricky Gervais, and Jane Krakowski.

It debuted on Netflix on April 22, 2020.


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Tropes

  • Abusive Parents: Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are of the emotionally abusive variety, with some Parental Neglect thrown in as well.
  • Accents Aren't Hereditary: The Willoughby kids have American accents but their parents sound vaguely English by contrast.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Covers for the book depict the Willoughbys as brunette. In the movie they’re all red headed.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: The Willoughby parents aren’t the greatest in the book, of course, but the kids were taken to school, birthday parties, and the zoo. Here, they (except maybe Jane) haven’t been out of the house in their lives.
  • Adaptational Name Change: A weird case. The book gives the parent’s names as Helen and Frances, while castlist give them as Helga and Walter...except in the movie proper, they are exclusively known as Mother and Father.
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  • Adaptational Personality Change: The Barnabys spoke more normally in the book.
  • Adult Fear: Almost everything the Willoughby children go through- from horrible levels of neglect to being separated by the foster care system to almost freezing to death on top of a mountain.
  • Adults Are Useless: The Willoughby parents are somewhere between this and Abusive Parents, as they do absolutely nothing to provide their children with clothes, food, and worst of all, love. They don't even know their own children's names!
  • Always Identical Twins: The Barnabys. Same hairstyle, same hair colour, same names, all that's not the same about them is that they only have one sweater to share.
  • An Aesop: As per the movie's tag line: “Family is what you make it.”
  • Age Lift: The book describes Jane as being the youngest of her siblings, the movie makes her the second oldest, with the Barnabys taking the spot as the youngest children.
  • The Alleged Car: Linda drives herself and the Willoughbys in an orange hippie van.
  • Amazing Technicolor Hair: The entire Willoughby family has pinkish-red hair.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: Melanoff and Ruth have deep pink and lilac skin respectively. Oddly, in illustrations such as his advertisements, Melanoff is depicted with ordinary brown skin, but he's definitively magenta in his character model.
  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: The Narrator is a cat with blue fur.
  • Anime Hair: Linda's hair is stylized like a heart.
  • Arc Words: "What if..."
  • Asshole Victim: Mr. & Mrs. Willoughby. Mortem a turpis.
  • Award-Bait Song: “I Choose” sung by Alessia Cara.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: The discovery of Ruth sets her and the Willoughbys on the path to loving parents and a happy home. Commander Melanoff outright says that he grew fond of her company and needs incredibly quickly, and decided to not give her up. Subverted by Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, who treat the birth of their children like disgusting ordeals that ruin the joy of their marriage.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • Tim asks Jane how the kids can rid themselves of their parents. Jane seemingly points to a butcher shop, then to a man pruning a tree with a chainsaw. Tim panics before Jane redirects him to the travel agency.
    • A particularly cruel example occurs late in the film when the kids rescue their parents from the Swiss alps. For a while it seemed like Mr. and Mrs Willoughby had a Heel Realization in regards to their poor parenting and were vowing to do better going forward... only for them to cruelly push their kids aside and steal their blimp, leaving their children stranded to likely death as a result.
    • The epilogue has a close-up on a face, with yarn strands as the beginning of a Willoughby mustache like Tim's always wanted.... only to reveal it's Jane's mustache, and Tim is now the only Willoughby without one.
  • Bannister Slide: The Willoughby kids do this after their parents leave for vacation–though Tim has to scoot down.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: All the Willoughby children wanted was their parents to be gone. And they succeeded. It worked so well that said parents decided to abandon them completely... leading to troubles with social services.
  • Be All My Sins Remembered: Tim believes he's unworthy of Linda coming to break him out of Orphan Services due to him being the one who got them and his siblings into the whole mess in the first place by calling the services on her due to his misunderstanding of her motives. It's even more established as seen by the numerous untouched bowls of oatmeal at his door, indicating his refusal to eat and possible desire to starve himself to death as comeuppance for his actions.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Linda, Ruth, and the Commander swoop in on a helicopter and rescue the Willoughbys.
  • Big Eater: For a tiny baby, Ruth can eat a lot of candy.
  • Black Comedy: The subject matter makes this undoubtedly one of the darker kids' films... And it's still mostly humorous and slapstick heavy - even when showing the abuse.
  • Bookends:
    • The Barnabys saying "Hi, mommy" in a creepy manner. The first to their abusive, biological mother and the second to Nanny, who they (along with Tim and Jane) want to be their adoptive mother.
    • Ruth showing her Big Eater tendencies before and after the Willoughby become her foster siblings.
    • There's a close-up of Tim's "mustache". The first is in Tim's Imagine Spot of having one like his ancestors while the last one is a Bait-and-Switch moment, as it's Jane's mustache beginning to grow.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby kissing each other. First, in their ancestral home and then before they're (possibly) about to be eaten by a shark.
    • Family portraits being shown — The beginning showing whole walls of Willoughby ancestors; the ending shows one of the Willoughby children with their new family of them, Nanny, Melanoff, and Ruth.
    • A baby’s first word being “Willoughby”.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: The Willoughby family has a whole has shades of this, especially with the way that they live in an old-fashioned home surrounded by skyscrapers that they apparently almost never leave. The parents don't even initially know what the internet is, the children have apparently never seen a television before, and Tim in particular wishes he could have been born into one of the earlier generations of Willoughbys, that were inventors, adventurers, etc.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Jane has every right to be mad at Tim for calling the CPA, accusing Linda of being a bad nanny, and getting them and their brothers taken away and separated from each other. Tim, on the other hand, calls Jane out for constantly getting him in trouble with their parents by leaving him to take the blame for her mischief and getting him thrown into their home's coal bin. The latter's attempt surprisingly is enough to convince Jane to forgive him.
  • A Boy, a Girl, and a Baby Family: Technically it’s three boys, one girl, and a baby family after the Willoughbys and Ruth get adopted but the same principle applies.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Tim wets his shorts after nearly being run over by a bus.
  • But I Can't Be Pregnant!: Mrs. Willoughby apparently didn't realize that she was pregnant until after she gave birth to Tim. And they didn’t know how not to make it happen, hence the existence of his siblings.
  • Chandelier Swing: The Barnabys do this after Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby leave for vacation.
  • Chekhov's Skill: The Barnabys are established early on as having a hobby of constructing miniature dirigibles which comes to play in the climax when they lead a project to build a life sized version.
  • Child Prodigy: The Barnabys are younger than Jane and Tim, presumably between the ages of 8-10, and are shown to be creative inventors.
  • Child Hater: Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are this, which makes them obliviously continuing to have them to abuse and neglect that much worse.
  • Commonality Connection: Jane is the first to bond with Linda the nanny because she also likes to sing.
  • Cool Airship: The giant candy-powered dirigible that the Willoughbys fly to rescue their parents from the Alp.
  • Creepy Twins: The Barnabys (straight example).
  • Department of Child Disservices: The Department of Orphan Services are feared by the Nanny, who says giving an orphan to them is like locking a puppy in a cage. When they show up they're depicted as an intimidating group of gaunt, pale, near identical individuals that callously separate the Willoughby children and put them in oblivious households. After Tim repeatedly runs away from his homes, they end up detaining him in what's basically a holding cell with nothing to eat but oatmeal. Partly subverted at the same time; the head of the D.O.S. is shown to care about all the orphans and will always try to put them with appropriate foster parents. Tim and Linda end up in the orphanage because they were rejected (or escaping) their foster parent homes. Even the oatmeal is explained to be prepared in such a way that it can be safely consumed by children.
  • Don't Split Us Up: While the Willoughby children couldn't care less about not having their birth parents around, they were crushed when Child Services arrived to take the siblings to foster homes upon finding out they were orphans. The Barnabys were allowed to remain together but Jane and Tim were placed with two different families.
  • Doorstop Baby: Early in the film, someone dropped Ruth at the Willoughby residence and Tim does this again upon his parents' orders and leaves her at Commander Melanoff's doorstep.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After all of the hardships that the Willoughby children endured throughout the film, they are all adopted by Linda the Nanny, and Commander Melanoff.
  • Easily Forgiven: While not everything is shown, Orphan Services do not seem to hold Linda technically kidnapping multiple children against her or seek to take any legal action. They don't seem to have had any issue with Linda adopting them in the end.
  • Empathic Environment: After Jane is callously told to stop singing by her mother, the sky outside turns dark and threatening.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby are seen deeply engulfed in wedded bliss-until Tim’s unexpected birth sours their tempers.
    • Tim is first seen admiring the hall of portraits and imagining he has a spectacular mustache of his own.
    • Jane is introduced playing various instruments and singing before Tim tells her to shush.
    • The Barnabys are first seen speaking in unison and switching their shared sweater.
  • Exact Words: The Alps are described as "unclimbable", but not "unflyable".
  • Family Portrait of Characterization: There are portraits of Willoughbys of generations past. All of them are stiffly posing, and the men all have prominent mustaches. The ending shows a portrait of the Willoughby children with Ruth, Melanoff, and Nanny — a unique but happy and loving family.
  • Family Title
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: During the credits, there’s a brief shot of Tim’s report card. From what can be seen, he has good grades in history but poor grades in mathematics.
    • The kids briefly stop by a gas station named “The Gas Hole.
  • Free-Range Children: The Willoughby children become these after getting rid of their parents.
  • Generation Xerox: Well, almost. The Willoughby family was a long line of explorers, inventors, royals, scientists, and knights...right up until Mr. Willoughby and his wife decided to do nothing with their lives but live off the family fortune. The children, on the other hand, are very much as brave and brilliant and resourceful as their ancestors had been.
  • Girls With Mustaches: The Willoughbys have a history of growing large mustaches, even the females. Jane starts to grow one in the end.
  • Godzilla Threshold: The foster system is so terrible for the Willoughbys that Tim argues the only way for them to stay together is to try and get their parents back.
  • Hair Color Dissonance: The Willoughby family have red hair but it looks pink.
  • Hairpin Lockpick: How Linda the Nanny escaped after the kids locked her up. She claims all nannies know this trick.
  • Happily Adopted: Commander Melanoff adopts Ruth when he finds her on the doorstep of his factory. At the end of the story, he and Linda the Nanny adopt the Willoughby children, becoming a great, loving family in the process.
  • Hen Pecked Husband: Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby love each other deeply but that doesn't stop her from making shrill demands of him that he complies to while barking like a dog. One particular example is her harvesting his hair to use as yarn for her knitting.
  • Indecisive Medium: The film is computer animated, but the overall style strongly resembles a stop-motion film.
  • Inexplicably Identical Individuals
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby's taxi driver and guides all look exactly alike, but considering how the couple's Too Dumb to Live antics keep getting the guides killed, like knocking them into a piranha-filled river for instance, it's highly unlikely that they're the same individual.
    • The Department of Orphan Services members that we see almost all look exactly alike.
  • In-Series Nickname: Implied and zigzagged with Tim. As, once in the movie, the cat narrator called him Timothy, his ancestor called him that in his Imagine Spot, and he writes it on his adoption certificate. But in the beginning, it's shown that his father had named him Tim, and that was the only thing he ever gave him, other than his siblings.
  • Irony: It was the Willoughby children who sent their parents on a perilous vacation to die. And it is ultimately the same children who narrowly save their parents from said-vacation.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: For a minute, it looks like the Willoughby parents have finally decided to change their selfish ways and be better parents towards their children after they confess their feelings about their behavior towards them and how they long for a proper family, and even that they were the ones that "orphaned" themselves. But, as it turns out, they didn't.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The head of the Department of Orphan Services revealing that Linda the Nanny was an unwanted orphan right in front of the woman.
    • Even after their children save them from death, confess to their trick, and make a heartfelt speech about being a family, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby shove them away to get inside the children's dirigible and abandon them again.
  • Kid Has a Point: "Kids" in this case. While the Willoughby children are messed up to a certain extent, they are absolutely correct on how atrocious their biological parents are.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After everything Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby put their children through, the last we see of them is the two adrift in the middle of the ocean, about to be eaten by a shark.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: All the Willoughbys' hair is depicted as red yarn and the Mother is wont to harvest her husband's to use as such for her knitting.
    • The Cat directly intervenes in the plot halfway through, apparently at the viewer’s request.
  • Leitmotif:
    • There’s a shift in orchestral arrangements. Scenes inside the Willoughby house use fewer instruments, whereas all scenes outside the Willoughby house uses a fuller orchestra.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby have swing music during their scenes
    • The cat has jazz/blues
    • Nanny has an orchestra with a prominent brass.
    • Commander Melanoff has techno.
    • Jane sings the same tune with different lyrics numerous times throughout the movie. It’s eventually incorporated into “I Choose.”
  • Like Father, Unlike Son: All past Willoughbys parents, aside from being adventurous and creative, were good parents who valued raising their children. For some reason, those good qualities skip a generation with the current Mr. Willoughby (and by extension Mrs. Willoughby).
  • Manly Facial Hair: The Willoughby family is a long line of bold adventurers that all have big bushy mustaches, even the women, until Father Willoughby and his wispy pencil stache- though that might be partially because his knitting-obsessed wife harvests the hair to make yarn. Tim is obsessed with this along with the rest of his heritage and it's the first thing he notices and respects about Commander Melanoff.
  • Marshmallow Hell: Nanny hugs Tim too enthusiastically.
  • Maybe Ever After: There is some subtle Ship Tease between Linda and Commander Melanoff when they properly meet. The ending doesn't confirm whether they're married but also doesn't deny it since they become the adoptive parents of the Willoughby children and Ruth.
  • Meganekko: Jane and Nanny both wear glasses.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: To extremes. While they’re annoyed by Tim and creeped out by the Barnabys, they seem to be unaware Jane even exists, up to not recognizing her name. Jane uses this to her advantage, though, making sure Tim takes the rap for her antics and possibly sneaking off to the city.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Tim is first seen as a newborn baby.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Nanny steals a security guards uniform to rescue Tim.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Tim after he accuses Linda of being a terrible nanny to the Department of Orphan Services and outright says that he doesn't want her, and ends up getting him and his siblings in foster care.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: After reading Nanny's text to their father, Tim is convinced that she's in league with their parents, so he reports her to CPS. But, as it turns out, she was going to actually take care of them, but by that time, the services had already already informed, and they expose Tim's exact words to her, driving her away. As for the kids, they ended up being taken away by the Orphan Services and put into separate homes, and Jane is left furious with Tim whom, after repeatedly running away from his foster homes, witnessing the sale and destruction of his family house, and being seemingly deemed "unplaceable" and confined to a cell at Orphan Services, is left wracked with overwhelming guilt over having inadvertently broken up his family.
  • No Antagonist: There's no major antagonist in the film. The Willoughby parents are simply selfish jerks, and the Department of Orphan Services may be scary-looking and authoritative, but their goal is to safely secure orphaned children.
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: Jane's foster family are hippies who believe in the "curative power of music" and spend their time singing and playing instruments, although none of this interests Jane, who is too upset about losing her home and brothers.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: You'd think saving Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby from certain death would finally earn the children love, or even help them see the light that their kids need them to be good parents for once. ...Nope! They only repay their children's act of love by stealing the blimp and abandoning them to freeze to death on a mountain peak.
  • No Name Given:
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby aren't given first names. They even refer to each other as Mother and Father. The cast listing calls them Helga and Walter, however.
    • Nanny is only referred to as Nanny though it's revealed by Orphan Services that her real name is Linda.
    • The Willoughbys' tabby cat who narrates the film is only referred to as “the cat.”
  • No OSHA Compliance: Colonel Melanoff is the only worker in his factory, which is a good thing because its automated production line has no safety railings and shut off switches are in the middle of wall sized control panels. The Nanny lampshades that it's not a good place to raise Ruth both because she can't only eat candy and it's not baby-proofed.
  • No Sympathy: Tim's plight at the start isn't helped by the fact that Jane routinely makes him the Scapegoat if their parents get upset, earning him the brunt of their ire even when she was the reason they were angry.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: The Willoughbys think this is preferable to their current situation of abusive parents until it actually happens and they're separated in the foster system to neglectful homes. The Nanny is revealed to also be an orphan, and has painful memories of the same system being rejected from home after home.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Linda's disguise as “Phil” is just her wearing a security uniform and arranging her hair to look like a beard.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Ruth, who had not been named yet, is first shown being abandoned by her natural parent at the Willoughby residence.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby decide to do this when they have a lot of fun on their getaway and do this again when their children come to rescue them.
  • Parental Neglect:
    • When Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby aren't being emotionally Abusive Parents to their kids, they're being this. The children are forced to eat leftovers, if their parents bother to leave any for them, they couldn't even be bothered with giving the Barnabys individual names, and they apparently never enrolled the kids in school. The only reason they bothered to hire Linda was to make sure that the kids didn't break anything while they were gone.
    • After being separated from their siblings, the younger Willoughbys end up in houses like this. The Barnabys are placed in a home where they're left plugged into media streaming from the internet 24/7, while the couple that is supposed to be looking after them remain oblivious using their VR headsets. Jane is put up with a family that "believes in the healing power of music" that spends all their time in a drum circle while ignoring her clear emotional suffering over Tim's betrayal, and having lost her brothers and the first adult who truly cared about any of them. Neither household notices or seems to care when Tim and Nanny come to collect them (although Jane's family does seem to briefly stall Orphan Services to allow them to get away).
  • Platonic Co-Parenting: The movie ends with the Willoughbys, Nanny, Commander Melanoff, and Ruth becoming one big, happy blended family, all living under the same roof and the two adults working together to raise the children. There is some Ship Tease between them, but nothing's ever confirmed.
  • Planet of Steves: The Barnabys are identical twins to the point of sharing the same name.
  • Quirky Household: Linda, the Commander, Ruth, and the Willoughby kids are this after the latter are formally adopted.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Jane has long pink hair that nearly reaches her feet.
  • Redhead In Green: Tim and Jane are red headed and dress in green.
  • Road Trip Plot: Nanny and the Willoughbys hit the road to evade social services.
  • Rose-Haired Sweetie: The Willoughby children all have pinkish-red hair and , while not "perfect", they're always there for each other, and even try to save their terrible parents at one point.
    • Inverted with their parents.
  • Running Gag:
    • The Barnabys share a single sweater and will randomly switch it with one another. Sadly, doing this on the mountain destroys it.
    • Mother will find something inconveniencing her and forcing her to declare, “I can’t knit!” It gets to the point that the tardigrades in Father’s mustache also repeat the phrase.
    • The numerous car accidents in the background.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby getting their guides killed.
    • Jane changing the lyrics of her song, though it’s Played for Drama at the end.
  • Scenery Porn: There’s an abundance of well detailed scenes, especially the exterior shots of the Willoughby home.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Tired of their parents' neglect, the Willoughbys decide to indirectly make themselves orphans by sending their parents on a perilous vacation assuming they'll be killed or go missing.
  • Shady Real Estate Agent: The relator the parents try to sell their house through is cartoonishly greedy and aggressive.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Jane cites Pollyanna and James as examples of orphans who had better lives after their parents perished horribly.
      • Doubles as Foreshadowing for those who know the books in question. Pollyanna went to live with her Aunt Polly, James with Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Neither had a happy foster family, such that the main action of their stories is them dealing with that fact.
    • Tim passes someone who strums a frighteningly familiar banjo tune.
    • Linda with her umbrella is likely a nod to Mary Poppins.
    • Ruth eats the candy in Commander Melanoff’s factory like PAC-Man.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Averted big time. A big part of the plot involves the Willoughby kids trying to evade social services.
  • Snow Means Death: Played with. The Willoughby kids nearly freeze to death in a snow storm on the Swiss Alps after their parents abandon them. They’re promptly rescued by Nanny, the Colonel, and Ruth though.
  • Snow Means Love: Of the familial love variety. It’s at the top of the snowy Swiss alps when the Willoughbys, Linda, Melanoff, and Ruth start to call each other family.
  • The Stinger: There's a short post-credits scene where the cat licks himself.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: The Willoughby siblings all resemble each other with their red hair.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome : The film shows us what happens when children try to take care of themselves, especially from a neglectful household; since their parents couldn't be bothered to teach them anything, the Willoughbys don't know how to make their own food or even heat the house and are shivering and starving before the Nanny shows up.
  • Talking Animal: The Cat voiced by Ricky Gervais is the film's narrator.
  • Tally Marks on the Prison Wall: The wall of the coal bin is covered in tally marks, showing just how often Tim has been thrown down there. Nanny is understandably horrified when she sees it for the first time.
  • Too Hungry to Be Polite: Jane eats an entire roast in one bite when given the chance. Later, she and the Barnabys are wolfing downs Nanny’s oats.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Even Linda describes the Willoughby children as "messed up kids".
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Everyone’s reactions when it’s revealed that Tim called CPS to rat out Nanny.
  • Wham Line: “Linda? Is that you?”
  • Wrong Assumption: Tim and the Barnabys assume their nanny to be a one bad upon first glance and try to get rid of her, when in reality, she was doing all she could for them, though for the latter two, she soon wins them over. It gets worse after he reads Linda's text response to the Willoughby's parents informing that they're selling the house (to stay on their vacation) and asking her to get rid of their children, with her replying that she would take care of him and his siblings, and he immediately jumps to conclusions that she's going to act on his parents' words and calls the Orphan Services on her. As it turns out, she wasn't planning anything like what he had thought, but by then, the services had already known.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: As Tim discovers after running away from his last foster family, the Willoughby house has been sold and demolished, thus dashing all his hopes of regaining any semblance of his old life. It's even more established when Orphan Services finds him at the lot where the house once stood and escorts him away from the scene.

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