Though intended as praise, the phrase “fun for the whole family” might be the single most off-putting way to describe just about anything. What it implies, for starters, is that the family unit—not the individual—is the fundamental consumer of experiences. How un-American. On top of that, it’s a lie. “Fun for the whole family” does not mean the alleged fun will be equally had by all. It means the kids will lose their little minds, while the adults, if they try hard enough, might eke out some fraction of forced enjoyment too. For proof, look no further than the medium to which this Chuck E. Cheese sentiment is most routinely applied: animated entertainment.
As usual, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated five films in the category of Best Animated Feature this year. Just as usual, all five have been called some version of “fun for the whole family” by critics and/or mommy-bloggers (same thing, nowadays)—as if that’s the best that animated cinema, more than a century after the birth of the art form, can hope to accomplish. For some, like A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, it is. A Santa hat–shaped alien named Lu-La crash-lands on Earth, makes friends with some farm animals given to heroic feats of bipedalism, and tries to find her way home. Stop-motion and mostly shorn of dialog, it’s a visual pleasure, and nothing more. At one point, Lu-La burps so loudly in a grocery store that idlers continents away glance up in alarm. At another, a scared robot shits out a sheet of paper. In terms of what whole families might consider hilarious, this evidently qualifies.
Farmageddon, so named because mild destruction is visited upon a remote field, is probably about something like learning to belong, but the happy ending—not a spoiler, because whole families tolerate nothing less—softens the theme to baby-food mush. After a climactic battle fizzles out amid flashbacks and tears, Lu-La is reunited with her parents, and even the villains appear reformed. Broadly, it’s the same strategy employed by fellow Oscar nominee Wolfwalkers, which many consider the best animated film of 2020. “Kids will be enchanted, adults will be enraptured,” Vulture writes, after consulting a thesaurus. NPR: “It isn’t made for kids. Or at least, not just for kids.” Wall Street Journal: “The film is terrific fare for kids … [But] adults will be eager to see where it’s all going to go.” Mama’s Geeky (whatever that is): “A must watch movie that is fun for the whole family.”
These reviews, picked entirely at random, verge on embarrassing—the overexertions of adult writers desperate to relive incomplete childhoods. Of course Wolfwalkers is for kids. Lovingly made in traditional 2D by the great Irish animators at Cartoon Saloon, it’s about kids, to begin with: one young girl with a single (human) dad, another with a single (wolf) mom. Also, it ends happily. Excessively happily. As the parties go to war in the last half hour, an escalating series of closer and closer calls, you’re convinced at least one of the parents will fall off a cliff to their tragic but meaningful doom. They don’t. Instead, everybody comes together, Farmageddon-style, in a big, smiling, part-human, part-animal embrace.
Nobody ever dies at the end of an animated movie. They die, tragically and motivationally, at the beginning. Sure enough, not one but two of this year’s remaining nominees follow this Bambi rule. In Pixar’s fantasy-quest film Onward, Dad dies, leaving behind two distraught sons. In Netflix’s fantasy-quest film Over the Moon, it’s Mom who falls ill, leaving a distraught daughter. The best that can be said of both these efforts is that the dead parents, though partially resurrected by various magical means, ultimately stay dead. Again, not a spoiler. When the goal is fun for the whole family, you already know how it all wraps up: with a family, newly whole, having fun. Mom finds a new boyfriend in Onward, and her sons warm up to him. Dad marries a new woman in Over the Moon, and his daughter warms up to her. Life goes onward, they’re over-the-moon happy, etc.
But what if the adult who dies at the beginning is not a parent, but the main character? Such is the case with this year’s last nominee and the frontrunner to win the Oscar, Soul. Another Pixar production, it follows the middle-aged musician Joe, who dies, amazingly, at the 9-minute mark. Never mind that he, Pixar’s first Black protagonist, spends most of the movie as either a blue-white soul-blob or a tawny therapy cat (and has to work through mommy issues himself). At least the formula is inverted.
Right up until it isn’t. Originally, Pixar’s plan was to keep Joe dead, to send him off to the Great Beyond in what surely would’ve been a moving and shocking burst of inspiration. But for reasons probably having to do with not perma-killing said first Black protagonist, Joe is given a second chance. “How are you gonna spend your life?” a cosmic being asks him. “I’m not sure,” Joe replies. “But I do know I’m gonna live every minute of it.” It’s a cliché as painful to type as it is to hear—and in a film made by Pixar, no less, a studio celebrated for its ingenuity and emotional intelligence. In the end, Soul tries so hard to be fun for all that it’s fun for none. Even a well-placed poop joke doesn’t help.
So who should win? Which fun-for-the-whole-family deserves the 2021 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film? Wolfwalkers, probably, if these unfabulous five are the only options, but they’re not. Or they shouldn’t have been. Because there’s a sixth movie from this past year that’s as worthy of accolades as it was ignored by the world. It’s called The Willoughbys.
Animated in lively, Laika-like grotesqueries, this Netflix original announces its difference from the very beginning: The two Willoughby parents hate their four Willoughby children, and the children hate them right back. It gets so bad that the kids decide to orphan themselves by sending their parents to their death. Here’s where a spoiler alert serves a genuine purpose, because The Willoughbys wiggles out of predictability. So, spoiler alert: Eventually, the kids realize they might need their “really bad parents” after all, so they set off to save them. At first, the parents seem grateful. Then they turn around and steal the dirigible, leaving the kids to freeze to death on the side of a mountain.
Yes, the kids survive, and there are smiles and great big hugs, but here, for once, is a happiness born of death, a happiness predicated on parricide. In the film’s final moments, the parents find themselves stranded again, and, having squandered their chance at redemption, they meet the fate they justly deserve. “The best stories are the hard ones, y’know?” says the narrator, a random black cat voiced by Ricky Gervais. He joins the kids as part of a new kind of found-family unit, which also includes a nanny, a candy maker, and a random baby. Another spoiler: The daughter grows a mustache. Everybody loves it.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, The Willoughbys offers—you can’t make this up—“fanciful fun the entire family can enjoy.” This time, not only is the claim wrongheaded. It manages to reach fresh depths of delusion. So unchallenged is the assumption that animated movies are family-friendly that, in light of one that expressly is not, the response is denial. There’s no way a silly movie with kids in it could actually aim to blow up the whole notion of what constitutes a whole family, right? It couldn’t possibly want us to look around the living room, at our so-called nearest and dearest, with a little bit, or maybe even a lot, of suspicion. Because everyone’s fine. Families stick together. They’re always whole, and they’re always having fun.