Director Kris Pearn shares why the animated film is the perfect quarantine watch.

By Rosy Cordero
April 22, 2020 at 05:07 PM EDT
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Netflix's new animated film The Willoughbys (available now) is the perfect title to stream while safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic, according to director Kris Pearn, because "there's something therapeutic about watching a little dysfunction."

Based on the Lois Lowry book of the same name, The Willoughys introduces a not-so-typical family. The parents (voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) are obsessively in love with one another but want nothing to do with any of their four children. Their eldest child, Tim (Will Forte), is a surrogate parent to his three younger siblings, Jane (Alessia Cara) and twin boys both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen). As the children grow tired of their selfish parents' abuse, they slyly convince them to travel far away leaving them in the care of an eccentric nanny (Maya Rudolph) in the comfort of their own home.

Nothing goes as planned and things get complicated as the foursome grows confused about who really has their best interest at heart. As the rest of the story unravels, the message of the film really becomes clear with a little help from the film's narrator (a sarcastic and sassy cat brought to life by Ricky Gervais), love is the most important thing in a family, not obligation.

Pearn, who also served as director of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 and had Rob Lodermeier on-board as co-director for this one, shared with EW insights into the film's unique story and why its message is more important now than ever.

Credit: Netflix

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first character viewers meet is a cat who narrates the story and he's voiced by cat-obsessed Ricky Gervais. Explain how this perfect casting happened?

KRIS PEARN: Ricky was definitely the inspiration for the cat. He was already on board as an executive producer before I joined. I think Ricky’s wife loved the book, so he was already working with my producer, Luke Carroll. I was so excited to work with him, he's a comedy icon. He was smart, kind, and collaborative in his role as executive producer and always supported what we were trying to do. But I did struggle with casting him.

There was a cat in the book, and I loved the idea that the cat from Mary Poppins was named Willoughby so that all knitted together to form the idea of making the cat a character. Ultimately, we landed on the idea of making him the narrator because that's kind of what Ricky does, stands back, and comments on the stupidity of humans. He gave us the opportunity to keep the story weird.

On the surface this story is heartbreaking! Why is its message so important, especially today?

I think tough times help us appreciate what matters. I'm 3,000 miles away from my family right now. My girls are now adults and they have their own lives. I miss them terribly, but they're with people who love them, and that gives me comfort.

When we made the movie we weren't thinking of a pandemic. I wanted to talk about family from the optics of love versus obligation. I think now, more than ever, love matters. Family is who shows up on your best day and your worst day, regardless of genes or a name. I believe all of us deserve love no matter what. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a relative, a neighbor, a friend, a nurse, or a stranger. I love my mailman. I wave at him from my window because he makes me feel like the world is still turning. He’s family now. I love you, Roy, thank you for the bills.

Even though you didn't have the pandemic in mind, why is this the perfect film to watch while quarantined?

I'm sure a few families are ready to escape each other. I think a funny movie that spit valves some of the darker frustrations of being stuck in a box with a bunch of people who share your genes might be a good now. There's something therapeutic about watching a bit of dysfunction to take the sting off of daily frustrations — and it helps that there's a happy ending. I'm ready for a happy ending. To hop in my rainbow dirigible and fly it as far away as I can from my apartment. I'm really ready to leave and go anywhere. When it's safe, of course.

The film is based on a book by Lois Lowry. Did she collaborate on this? Has she already seen it?

She did watch it! I was very nervous to show her because there were choices we made, lots of them. She was involved at the beginning but we didn’t screen the movie for her until closer to the end of the process. Animation is tricky to look at when it’s unformed, so I wanted to make sure the film had enough polish and context so she could see how it would look as a finished product.  She really liked it, especially how we called out the parents. She thought their love story was funny and told me that she was jumping into a sequel for the book. I won’t give away what I know but it’s really weird. I like weird.

Does this mean you'd consider making a sequel if Netflix comes knocking?

If they knock while I’m sheltering in place, I’ll say yes to anything. I’m pretty lonely. But all jokes aside, I really care about the characters and the world, so if it ever made sense, I’d love to be involved. As of right now though, I'm trying to get some perspective and hope that our strange little film finds an audience. As the cat says, “the best stories are the hard ones,” so we’ll see!

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