The Willoughbys starts like most animated movies. Its opening scene is of a colourful city full of featureless skyscrapers and skinny, irregularly-shaped people with sharp and pointy faces. It appears distinctly optimistic and designed to be the scene for a naïve lesson about life and human beings.

But then there is narration, which is cynical in its description of the city and its people – disparaging even. Gradually, we place whom the British accent belongs to. It is a person who should not be allowed in any animated movie whatsoever. He should not even be allowed near children. It is Ricky Gervais. It is then that the realisation that this is not a children’s movie hits. It is going to be a journey down cynicism's lane.

Gervais plays a cat that belongs to a highly conservative and traditional family, the Willoughbys. They are represented by a line of patriarchs known for being adventurous and having carefully kempt moustaches. The current owner of the family name though neither has a moustache nor is adventurous. He is married to someone that looks, sounds and acts too much like himself for comfort.

The marriage is a happy one, in a strange and uncomfortable way. All they are interested in is being close to each other. They also call one another “mother” and “father.” They are obviously living a Freudian nightmare - probably a utopia from their perspective - but this theme is not further explored in the movie.

The couple does not strike one as the type that wants children. But they have four of them, and the film is their story.

The best scene in the movie takes place after the birth of the Willoughbys' first child, Tim (Will Forte), when the patriarch gives the just born baby an introduction to his parents and the world.

“I’m your father, and that woman you insulted with your rude birth is Mother,” he says to Tim. “If you need love, I beg of you, find it elsewhere … Good day, sir.”

It will not come as a surprise then that the plot of the film revolves around the Willoughby children attempting to get their parents killed, so they can be orphans. They almost succeed at this, but they also find out in due time that the alternative would be almost just as bad - going to an orphanage straight out of a dystopian future, à la the sci-fi movie Equilibrium, where aestheticism is not allowed.

The Willoughbys is not a family movie. It has the visual inspiration of Tim Burton in its use of caricature to depict people and scenery. But Burton was an optimist at heart and cared a great deal about empathy, love and family values, and how they can be extended to the Edward Scissorhands of the world.

This is not the case for The Willoughbys. The moral values of not just society but also individuals are just as problematic as the distorted physical appearances of the human beings in this movie. Their sharp and pointy faces are a stand-in for their broken mental and emotional states.

And, as in many things Gervais has participated in, we ask, why? What is the purpose of all of this nihilism? Why make a movie about it if nothing matters? Surely this must mean that at least attention matters, right?

Gervais is one of the greatest comedians that has ever lived. What he does may work in stand-up comedy, but there needs to be some sense of consistency in the theme of any piece of art that attempts to tell a story. He cannot claim that nothing matters except a few intimate relationships – like the ones the Willoughbys develop with each other.

Why them in particular?

If this movie, which finds its inspiration in the gallows humour of Gervais, Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle – even George Carlin believed there was something worth fighting for – had stuck with the idea of the absurdity of the entirety of existence, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.

It does not.

PUBLISHED ON May 23,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1047]

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