The Willoughbys – Netflix

Based on the book by Lois Lowry

Written by Kris Pearn & Mark Stanleigh

Directed by Kris Pearn, Cory Evans & Rob Lodermeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At one point or another, we’ve all fallen out with our folks, maybe to the extent we wish we had been adopted but hopefully not to the extreme where we send them on a deadly holiday. The Willoughbys, however, are perhaps as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. As twisted as they are colourful, this update on A Series of Unfortunate Events focuses on the titular Willoughbys and their pursuit of a loving family. From the mind of author Lois Lowry, directors Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh have adapted the original book for Netflix in a bid to increase the platform’s original children’s content. 

Tim, Jane and the twins Barnaby A and B are frequently starved, left to sleep in the coal bin and generally made to feel like they are burdens on their mother and father. Their parents are neglectful, callous and, worst of all, can’t even grow a proper moustache. After encountering an orphan and sending it to live with Commander Melanoff, an eccentric candy factory owner, the children forge a relationship with their nanny, the cheapest one their parents could find. Animated with weaving motions, where the illustrations offer weight to the characters, much of the story focuses on physical humour and offers levity to the often macabre narrative.

Detaching themselves from the story (for the most part), The Willoughby’s narrator is a blue tabby cat, an otherwise unassuming character who provides off-the-cuff remarks with a voice courtesy of Ricky Gervais. While that may put some viewers off, it should be known that Gervais’ performance is limited and also one of the film’s better casting choices. His narcissistic tones suit the animation of the feline prowler, while his performance, as expected, is certainly the most recognisable and little is done to distinguish the fact it’s Gervais. Love him or loathe him, there’s an element of comedy brought to the performance, and a genuine sense of romanticism for traditional storytelling.

Of the four children, Tim and Jane are voiced by Will Forte and Alessia Cara respectively, and the twins by noted voice artist Seán Cullen. With this Cara’s first foray into the animation genre, the singer effortlessly captures an authentic sense of childlike innocence and thirst for adventure and contributes the film’s sole musical number – a touching song, with haunting edges contrasting against the bouncy nature of the score. Really, though, as one would naturally expect, Jane Krakowski and Martin Short catapult the film well above the heads of the kids and directly into the notorious realms of adult humour as Mother and Father. The pair are despicable and have a dimension of sliminess that just cannot be resisted.

The intention to maintain this bright, almost patchwork style of animation works marvels with the deceptive nature of characters. Craig Kellman’s character creations, recognisable from his work on Hotel Transylvania, avoid the pitfalls of visual bluntness. While animated films are notorious for drawing attention to antagonists with obvious designs, The Willoughbys staves off this idea for the most part. Our antagonists are evident from their actions, not their aspects, and our misunderstood supporting cast members are redeemed too with words and deed. It enables a more precise lesson for children, where a character’s motivation speaks louder than their image.

Across the board, fragmentation occurs when The Willoughbys is considered as a whole as opposed to scene-by-scene. Segments of the story are undeveloped, emphasising mundane details or characters, but these loose threads in an otherwise fantastical and inventive tapestry cannot detract from the overall aesthetic, which rivals any major feature churned out from juggernauts of the children’s media empire.

Marrying whimsy with the brutality of a classic Dahl tale, The Willoughbys may conjure perceptions of a flimsy (and perhaps cheap) children’s amusement tool, but Netflix stands toe-to-toe with the Mouse and the Moon and far outshines Illuminations with their recent addition to the animated library.

The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

The Shed – Review

Directed by Frank Sabatella

Written by Frank Sabatella & Jason Rice

Rating: 2 out of 5.

When a vampire hides out in the shed, your premise teeters on the brink of ludicrous rather than serious. Frank Sabatella’s The Shed (2019) though has serious chomps to take out of the social paradigm of bullying, abuse, and snap judgements, it’s just a shame this all gets wrapped up in the wrong delivery. Stan is a young man (though seven years too old for a high-schooler) who grows up under the vigilant ‘boomer’ antics of his Grandfather, a crotchety, one-note character who seems determined to berate Stan despite the traumatic deaths of his parents.

Life isn’t any easier at school, as Stan and best friend Dommer are the outcasts, the weirdos, and traditionally far too square-jawed and attractive to convey this. They suffer from the norms of high school, love lost, bullies and a suspiciously missing faculty, the pair come to realise that a vampire has taken up residence in Stan’s shed. An apparition of unmitigated power, particularly of violent masculinity, this beast tempts Dommer into aiding him to unleash his bloodlust onto the bullies who have driven Dommer to the point of derangement. All the while, Stan figures out how to keep the town safe, remove the threat and of course, secure the attention of love interest Roxy.

When your film dedicates itself to a body count, the inclusion of unpleasant characters come par of the course. Where The Shed drops the ball is in creating such one-dimensional supporting characters, that even forced empathy cannot rally the audience to support the slaughter of bullies or mourn the loss of the only decent humans. After twenty minutes of watching, the only character worth concern is the pet dog. Cody Kostro’s Dommer starts thoroughly unlikable and attempts to forge a connection with the audience fail. Entirely down to the writing, Kostro turns in a harrowingly visceral performance once the taunts and assaults get too much for him, he snaps, and what follows is a performance deserving of a better film.

Equally, the chemistry between Stan (Jay Jay Warren) and Roxy (Sofia Happonen) develops well, at first seeming bland and an obligatory male gaze, Happonen turns in a fleshed-out performance, or at least as far as she is able, given the scenario. There’s a running problem where much of the setup is hashed to begin and develops over time, but not in the correct manner, while the payoff of characterisation emerges, it comes from nothing, especially from bully Marble, played by Chris Petrovski, who is fundamentally flat until the stand-off he has with Kostro in the film’s most potent moment. The characterisation and direction haven’t led to this naturally, instead, the writing conducts a reversal and the actors happen to turn in a deeper performance.

Here The Shed demonstrates its most substantial issue. Often in cinema, a solid start is the norm, and a weak ending follows. Sabatella’s writing subverts this, and the film’s setup is ineffective, but the thought process behind the latter half is frustratingly powerful. That of a ‘monster’ in the shed, a being amalgamed from uncontrollable rage which calls to the downtrodden, the abused and hurt. This symbolic nature of unleashing said monstrosity to punish, at the cost of our decency is fully stripped by the feeble setup and inability to connect. Such a powerful metaphor for those of us who dreamt of a power to defeat bullies, only to recognise our shift into the monster, squandered.

Disregarding the semantical nature, this tension fuels the ending, and there’s a sobering moment before the climax where the assaulter and his victims have a final confrontation. Dommer carrying a firearm, the victim turned assailant now devoid of empathy or reason, as the music cuts the emotions heighten, and the acting is nothing of what it once was. If anything, this brutally frank scene on the warping of a victims mindset is made for a far superior film which didn’t need the supernatural aspect.

But, at its core, The Shed is a horror film, and as such the supernatural aspect is integral. It’s a shame that despite the cleverness in the lore, particularly the toying with lighting, isn’t capitalised on correctly. The vampire is revealed excessively early, blowing any payoff later into the film. Even after revealing the look of the being, which has adequate make-up, the film continuously shows the creature, gradually stripping any tangible fear the audience may have. Traditionally, vampires are ‘the other’, the foreigner, the unknown monster. The unfamiliar element here is potentially masculine aggression, but Sabatella isn’t tying this into the vampire lore, this could have been any movie monstrosity.

Neither ridiculous nor gory, The Shed seems unsure of which avenue to remain in. It certainly contains the levity, satire and jokes to call itself an attempted comedy, but the teenage angst and more serious notes towards bullying suggest an attempt at a severe notion beneath the traditional horror angle. Sabatella is conflicted, wanting to cover too many bases, and unfortunately ends up creating murky waters in what was tremendous potential. There are certainly fangs, but they don’t draw much blood.

Review originally published for In Their Own League:

Scottish Opera – Fever! Teaching & Parental Resources

Continuing their commitment to broadening the scopes of opera and young minds across Scotland and the UK, Scottish Opera is making a wealth of materials and learning tools available to the public, aimed at children studying around the primary five-seven brackets.

As of today (May 11th) schools and families will have access to online teaching resources for the popular primary schools production Fever! Featuring music by Alan Penman, with lyrics courtesy of Allan Dunn, Fever! Was first performed in 2011 and has remained a firm favourite since. For the first time, this online version of the tool has been made available for those at home, allowing the country to delve into the humorous and fast-paced tale. All of which will culminate in a nationwide virtual performance at the end of June.

Underpinning an appropriately aged message, tackling the concepts of epidemics, viral transmissions and the equally as dangerous spreading of false news, Fever! tells the story of a young boy who is overcome by a mysterious illnessAs the doctors frantically search for a cure, a rush of media, hungry for a piece of the scoop, bombard the hospital.

Until June 15th, this series of audio teaching tracks, activity materials and videos will cover a variety of topics, not limiting themselves to the obvious. Creative writing, prop and costume creation, and science will all be incorporated into the tools. Featuring seasoned cast members Lucy Hutcheson and Alan McKenzie from the Primary School tours, illustrations for the resources are by Iain Piercy. Advocating the communication of story through artistic means, the tools also look at the mechanics of the human body, disease, and perhaps vitally for younger generations, the impact of the press and media on everyday lives. Designed to tie into teachers delivering core elements of the Curriculum of Excellence such as social studies, history, technologies, literacy, and citizenship, the tools are equally available to parents outside of the curriculum.

For those who think opera can only exist in the past, Scottish Opera once more reminds us that the art form is relevant, accessible and underpins contemporary issues. Information and resources can be located here:

Photo credit – Sally Jubb