Australian Council on Children and the Media

Willoughbys, The

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Not suitable under 8; parental guidance to 12 (disturbing themes, animated violence, some scary scenes, and crude humour)

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This topic contains:

  • overall comments and recommendations
  • details of classification and consumer advice lines for Willoughbys, The
  • a review of Willoughbys, The completed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) on 6 May 2020.

Overall comments and recommendations

Children under 8 Not suitable due to disturbing themes (cruel, selfish parents; children wanting their parents dead), animated violence, some scary scenes, and crude humour.
Children aged 8–12 Parental guidance recommended due to disturbing themes (cruel, selfish parents; children wanting their parents dead), animated violence, some scary scenes, and crude humour.
Children aged 12 and over Ok for this age group.

About the movie

This section contains details about the movie, including its classification by the Australian Government Classification Board and the associated consumer advice lines.

Name of movie: Willoughbys, The
Classification: PG
Consumer advice lines: Mild Crude Humour, Mild Themes, Mild Violence
Length 92 minutes

ACCM review

This review of the movie contains the following information:

A synopsis of the story

The Willoughbys are a dysfunctional family of four children, Tim (voice of Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara) and twins Barnaby A and B (voice of Sean Cullen), who suffer under their horribly selfish parents, Mother (voice of Jane Krakowski) and Father (voice of Martin Short). Mr and Mrs Willoughby are so much in love and absorbed by each other, that they don't have any love or time left for their children and "their childish needs". Tim learns from an early age not to seek love from his Mother but to find it elsewhere. The children are neglected and punished for trivial matters and Tim often ends up in the coal bin. Fed up with being neglected, maltreated, and starved for love as well as food, the young Willoughbys hatch a plan to rid themselves of their self-centred parents and become orphans. The plan is to create a travel brochure to lure their parents away to foreign places, however, the travel plan is full of deadly traps, devised with the hope the parents will never return.

Things do not turn out exactly as planned when the children realise that their parents found a Nanny for them before they left. Nanny (voice of Maya Rudolph) was the cheapest the parents could find but she turns out to be really nice. Before discovering this, however, Tim advises Children's Services that they have a bad nanny. The children are separated and taken into care. Tim now has to devise a new plan to get his parents back so the children can be together again. The plan has a major flaw though; obliviously escaping every single death trap, their parents are planning to sell the family home to finance more adventures and Tim does not know if their parents will even want to take them back.

Themesinfo

Children and adolescents may react adversely at different ages to themes of crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, death, serious illness, family breakdown, death or separation from a parent, animal distress or cruelty to animals, children as victims, natural disasters and racism. Occasionally reviews may also signal themes that some parents may simply wish to know about.

Childhood neglect and abuse; Dysfunctional families; Orphans; Resilience; Determination; Making the best of one’s fate; The importance of family.

Use of violenceinfo

Research shows that children are at risk of learning that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution when violence is glamourised, performed by an attractive hero, successful, has few real life consequences, is set in a comic context and / or is mostly perpetrated by male characters with female victims, or by one race against another.

Repeated exposure to violent content can reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution. Repeated exposure also increases the risks that children will become desensitised to the use of violence in real life or develop an exaggerated view about the prevalence and likelihood of violence in their own world.

There is a lot of slapstick violence in this movie including:

  • Objects fall on the children.
  • A baby called Ruth launches herself into Tim's face.
  • Tim nearly gets hit by cars and buses trying to cross the road.
  • The twins make a 'nanny cup' which catapults Tim into the window.
  • Tim throws oats at Nanny.
  • Parents are seen escaping dangerous situations such as an erupting volcano and rhinos chasing them in the jungle.
  • In order to defend their home against getting sold, the children fit the house with traps so that potential buyers get electric shocks, get punched, fall through holes in the floor, or get catapulted out the window.
  • Nanny hits Tom with a pillow. She 'breaks him out' of juvenile detention centre and throws him into a car. Tim hits his head on the roof. Cars follow after them and all smash into a gate. Nanny nearly smashes the car.

Other violence includes:

  • The Willoughby parents are generally not physically violent toward their children, but utterly neglectful and emotionally abusive – constantly telling their children what a nuisance they are, ignoring them, forgetting their names, locking them in the coal cellar etc.
  • Father bashes Tim on the head and kicks him into the coal bin.
  • Father yells at the children in anger.
  • The children fantasise about their parents having a fatal accident on their trip, for example getting eaten by sharks, captured by cannibals, being attacked by bears, falling into a volcano, or freezing to death. The parents closely escape all of the traps but instead other people get hurt or can be assumed dead. It is safe to assume that at the very end they actually die in a shark attack.
  • Ruth nearly falls into a furnace before Nanny catches her just in time.

Material that may scare or disturb children

Under fiveinfo

Children under five are most likely to be frightened by scary visual images, such as monsters, physical transformations.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children under the age of five, including the following:

  • Thunder and lightning flashes occur which frighten the children.
  • The Commander of Candy Land is an imposing looking large character with a booming voice.
  • A picture of Great Uncle Edmund on the wall comes to life and starts talking.
  • The children go into the attic which is dark and scary, lit by candles. A large ghost/beast appears which sounds and looks very scary.

Aged five to eightinfo

Children aged five to eight will also be frightened by scary visual images and will also be disturbed by depictions of the death of a parent, a child abandoned or separated from parents, children or animals being hurt or threatened and / or natural disasters.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes and scary visual images, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged five to eight, including the following:

  • The parents are often seen dining alone while the children go hungry. Tim steals food on occasions.
  • Father carries Tim (as a baby) out of the room by his hair and tells him not to come to his Mother for love – he must find it elsewhere.
  • During the thunderstorm the children are very scared and think that if there's a monster they should split up so that it only eats one of them. They find a box on the doorstep and when they look inside Jane screams.
  • A butcher is seen with a large cleaver chopping meat and a man takes a chainsaw to a tree.
  • The parents run out of money on the trip and decide to sell the house. They tell the agent to dispose of the children as she wishes.
  • Nanny dresses up as a ghost and scares the visitors and the children also.
  • The children fly a candy dirigible to the Alps to find their parents. There they find what looks like a graveyard of frozen people. They break into the icy tombs and find their parents frozen together (kissing). They aren't dead and come to life. The parents then kick the children out of the way and take the dirigible to save themselves. The siblings are left stranded on top of the Alps and feel hopeless. They huddle together and get covered in snow. Nanny comes to the rescue just in time. This is a suspenseful scene when the viewer is led to believe that the children have frozen to death.
  • Young children who cannot yet understand black humour and do not see the theatrical exaggeration could get upset about how cruelly the parents mistreat their children, and that the children want their parents dead.

Aged eight to thirteeninfo

Children aged eight to thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic threats and dangers, violence or threat of violence and / or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

In addition to the above mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged eight to thirteen, including the following:

  • An orphaned baby appears on the doorstep which Jane wants to keep. When Father sees this he kicks all of the children out of home. Tim is frightened to leave the house as he has never been outside.
  • In care, the children are sad and lonely. Tim runs away from all of the homes he is placed in and ends up in what looks like a prison cell (juvenile detention).
  • Tim tells his siblings they have to find their parents to stop them killing themselves.

Over thirteeninfo

Children over the age of thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic physical harm or threats, molestation or sexual assault and / or threats from aliens or the occult.

Nothing further of concern.

Product placement

  • None noted.

Sexual references

There are some sexual references in this movie, including:

  • Mother and Father only have eyes for each other. They are constantly seen interlocking lips, hugging, and courting and calling each other suggestive names such as, “musty buns” (Mr Willoughby makes a gargling sound in his throat to beguile Mrs Willoughby).
  • There is a play with words about "Mother's balls" (referring to Mrs Willoughby’s knitting yarn).
  • Tim's birth is portrayed indirectly: the viewer hears Mr and Mrs Willoughby's distant chatter getting interrupted by a "splattering" sound (the moment Tim is born) upon which Mr Willoughby throws the newborn baby out of the room, telling him how he insulted his mother with "his rude birth".

Nudity and sexual activity

  • None noted.

Use of substances

  • None noted.

Coarse language

There is some coarse language in this movie, including:

  • Shut up.
  • Blimey.
  • Screwed up.
  • Darn it!
  • Name calling such as, “ball burner” and “Idiots!”

In a nutshell

Based on Lois Lowry's novel with the same title, The Willoughbys is a very dark animated comedy. It is narrated by a cat (Ricky Gervais) and is fast paced. Some crude jokes and comments are clearly aimed at adults rather than at children. There are some positive messages to be drawn and the movie’s slapstick humour gives it a light appearance but its themes are dark and disturbing. Therefore, it is not suitable for children under 8 and parental guidance is recommended for children aged 8 – 12 years to make sure the movie is not taken literally, and to help these older children understand the dark humour and exaggeration. Best suited to teens and above.

The main messages from this movie are that despite adversity the human spirit can remain strong, smart, resilient, hopeful and creative; everyone needs and deserves love; and that it is important to keep an open mind and heart.

Values in this movie that parents may wish to reinforce with their children include:

  • Determination.
  • Resilience.
  • Compassion.
  • Teamwork.
  • The importance of family.
  • The importance of children feeling loved and accepted.
  • Siblings standing up for one another.
  • Chasing one's dreams.
  • Fighting for what one deserves.
  • Imagination.
  • Hope.

This movie could also give parents the opportunity to discuss with their children attitudes and behaviours, and their real-life consequences, such as:

  • Being selfish and mean.
  • Parents mistreating their children. - Although this movie is presented as a comedy, just meant to entertain, Mother and Father are depicted as cruel, self-centred, mean-spirited and altogether nasty. How would you and your family react if a situation such as this was known to you?
  • Judging people prematurely.
  • The children came up with all sorts of creative ways to overcome their dreadful predicament. What should have been done to help them?

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