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THE WILLOUGHBYS – Mark Mothersbaugh

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The importance of family is the thematic driving force behind The Willoughbys, a new CGI animated comedy from director Kris Pearn, which premiered on Netflix in April 2020. The film is based on a popular book by author Lois Lowry and follows the adventures of the four Willoughby children – intelligent Tim, precociously talented Jane, and a pair of creepy twin boys both called Barnaby – who conspire to rid themselves of their neglectful and disinterested parents after they find an abandoned baby, but are ordered to get rid of it. After tricking their parents into going on an insanely dangerous European vacation, the Willoughby’s are shocked to find that a Nanny has been hired to look after them; Tim immediately distrusts the Nanny as being in league with his parents, and does everything to thwart her plans. However, there is more to Nanny than meets the eye, and before long a plan is in motion to find their now-missing parents and keep the family together. The film has an excellent voice cast, including Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, and Ricky Gervais, and has been quite well received by critics as a wholesome story that blends slapstick comedy hi-jinks with warm sentiment and heart.

The score for The Willoughbys is by composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who is of course no stranger to the world of animation, having worked extensively on film and TV projects including Rugrats, the Hotel Transylvania series, the Lego Movie series, and the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs series (the second of which was also directed by Pearn). Mothersbaugh is an interesting composer to me because, even though he has successfully navigated multiple genres throughout his career, and proved himself adept at writing in a myriad of styles, I think people still think of him as a quirky electro-pop composer, mostly because of his enduring relationship with his band Devo. In reality, his career arc has mostly followed the same path as someone like Danny Elfman: he was the front man of an iconic 80s band, did some quirky comedies early in his career, got attached to a hit animated TV series, and has built from there. However, whereas Elfman STARTED with a massive orchestral super hero score in Batman, Mothersbaugh didn’t get involved in those sorts of films until Thor Ragnarok, and I think it has sort of become stuck in people’s minds that he never really does the ‘full orchestral thing’. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and he’s actually really, really good at it.

The score for The Willoughbys is a great example of Mothersbaugh doing the ‘full orchestral thing,’ but what makes this score stand out is all the fun he has doing it. Mothersbaugh mixes his large orchestral palette with influences from everywhere and everything, including classical and renaissance pastiche, jazz and big band swing, some ethnic touches, choirs (including some pieces which have lyrics), and so much more. The end result is a score which has a sort of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink feeling; some may find this approach irritatingly un-focused and a little overly-kitsch, especially in the moments of clearly overt comedy, but there are more than enough moments of orchestral beauty to make it worthwhile. Not only that, but if you buy into the entire thing wholesale, some of the moments of comedy hi-jinks and anarchy are thoroughly entertaining too.

The main thematic idea in the score is the one for the Willoughby children themselves, and Mothersbaugh gets quite a lot of mileage from it by arranging it in numerous different styles as the score progresses. It forms the main melodic core of the first three cues – “The Willoughbys,” the “Main Title,” and “The Willoughby Boogie” – and is a fun melody that feels a little like an update to something like The Addams Family or The Munsters. In the first cue it is arranged as a fun groove for jazzy horns, keyboards, and modern percussion, before switching to feature prominent cellos and basses, and acoustic guitars, all underpinned with swaggery finger-snapping beats like a piece of Billy May big band swing. The “Main Title” version is initially arranged like a fairytale music box, with chimes and glockenspiels and tragic cellos, but then it brings in a harpsichord and suddenly it sounds like one of those great Edwin Astley themes from those 1960s British TV shows like Danger Man or The Baron. In fact, the regular use of a harpsichord or dulcimer is one of the score’s defining features, and it gives the whole thing a sort of antiquated feel, reflecting the stuffy, old fashioned house the Willoughby children grew up in. Finally, in the “Willoughby Boogie,” the theme adopts a different sort of arrangement that has a feeling of 1950s rock and roll, perhaps with a country twang, and features a fabulous muted trumpet, banjos, drums and brushed snares, and a ragtime piano.

The main theme features in many of the score’s subsequent cues, including a moment of celebration in “We Are Orphans,” and in the upbeat and festive “Parents Are Still Alive,” but Mothersbaugh is an insanely creative guy, and there is still lots more to explore. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the score is its orchestrations, which make wonderful use of the entire orchestra in numerous different styles and settings. In many of the early cues there is a sense of ‘general creepiness’ wherein Mothersbaugh creates a spooky atmosphere with some notably excellent writing for harpsichord, percussion, and flutes. Cues such as “Stealing Food,” “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night,” “Here Beastie Beastie,” and “Nanny’s Arrival” are notable in this regard, although the latter cue also has a touch of poignant magic and wonderment in the strings which alludes to one of the plot revelations later in the movie.

The moments of broad comedy are similarly inventive, perhaps no more so than in the “Brochure Montage,” which underscores the scene where the Willoughby children are plotting to send their parents on a hair-raising European vacation by creating a fake travel guide. Mothersbaugh has a ton of fun blending numerous geographically-related styles into a quirky, amusing march, and finds time to incorporate Hawaiian luau music, faux-British pageantry, and Alpine yodeling, into just over 90 seconds. Elsewhere, “Man of the House” has a medieval renaissance style, and there also two ridiculous songs: “The Warmest Glove,” a Bing Crosby-esque croon, and “The Perfect Family,” a hilarious choral piece where angelic voices sing phrases such as ‘love,’ ‘roses,’ ‘ooh tingles,’ and ‘ooh wonderful’ with a wholly straight face. This is counterbalanced by some more straightforward sentimental orchestral material, much of which appears to relate to the character of Commander Melanoff, the owner of a candy factory who plays an important role in the children’s lives. Cues such as “Melanoff’s Magnificent Mustache,” “I Want Her To Stay,” and “We Unite As Willoughbys” are lush and sweeping, with gorgeous harmonies, moments of tenderness and warmth, and some especially lovely sentimental cello writing that is very Elfmanesque in places.

However, my own personal favorite moments of the score are the ones where Mothersbaugh is either engaging in straightforward orchestral action, or dipping his toes back into his 1980s electro-pop heritage. Mothersbaugh has always been really great at action – you only need to listen to his work on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or the Lego Movie to know that – and of course his 1980s electronica credentials are unimpeachable. He brought both these styles together in Thor Ragnarok, and anyone who loved what was going on there will have fun with this too. Cues like “Willoughby Beast,” “I’m Bustin You Out,” “Chase/Rainbow Zeppelin,” and “Follow the Yarn” are superb orchestral action cues, rousing and bold. “I’m Bustin You Out” has a notably vivid whirligig pace, and builds to several dramatic crescendos for banks of trilling horns that have slight echoes of both James Horner and Thomas Newman. “Chase/Rainbow Zeppelin” revisits the yodels from the Brochure sequence and offers some superb orchestral settings of the main theme, while “Follow the Yarn” is especially imposing, featuring lots of percussion, bold horns, and swirling strings. Meanwhile, “Melanoff’s Factory” is a full-on 1980s electro-pop extravaganza, with processed vocals, layers of synthesizers, and trance-like hypnotic rhythmic pulses. At times it does become quite frantic, and perhaps a little bit bizarre, and in these moments it has a lot in common with some of Danny Elfman’s more out-there early scores. Later, “Escape” is another synth-based nostalgia throwback, the highlights of which include a series of electronic percussion hits that have a wonderful vintage sound.

Everything finally comes together in “The New Family,” which begins with a touch of hesitation in its tremolo strings, but slowly becomes warmer and more appealing, and eventually emerges into a truly gorgeous version of the main Willoughbys theme for strings, Elfmanesque brasses, and a light choir. The tone is flighty and breezy, perhaps a little heroic, but most of all it is happy – after being marginalized and ignored their entire lives, these precocious kids have finally found themselves in the care of parents who love them for who they are. But there is one final sting in the tail: “Meat Mustache/Shark” hints at the watery fate of the Willoughby’s *real* parents with a return to the Hawaiian luau motif from the Brochure montage. I’m almost a little disappointed that Mothersbaugh didn’t use the theme from Jaws!

The Willoughbys is a terrific score, tons of fun, creative and entertaining, but also with a lot of heart and wholesome sentiment. As I mentioned earlier, I can see how some listeners may suffer from a little case of musical whiplash, as Mothersbaugh does occasionally have a tendency to jump from style to style and genre to genre at breakneck speed. It’s not quite mickey-mousing, but it does come perilously close on occasion. I can also see how some people may be frustrated by its apparent lack of focus; after the first few cues the main Willoughby theme does disappear for long periods of time, buried deep within action cues, or replaced entirely by other ideas. Personally, though, I was quite taken with Mothersbaugh’s energetic and sincere approach to the whole thing, and the general level of creativity on display is very impressive, especially from an instrumental and orchestration point of view. As such, it comes with a recommendation, and a special note that if you appreciated Thor Ragnarok you are likely to feel the same way here.

Buy the Willoughbys soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Willoughbys (1:36)
  • Main Title (1:16)
  • The Willoughby Boogie (1:06)
  • Stealing Food (2:43)
  • It Was A Dark And Stormy Night (2:19)
  • The Willoughby Boogie Reprise (0:55)
  • Here Beastie Beastie (1:27)
  • Melanoff’s Magnificent Mustache (2:35)
  • Brochure Montage (1:33)
  • The Warmest Glove/Parents Depart (2:08)
  • We Are Orphans (0:52)
  • Nanny’s Arrival (2:05)
  • Man Of The House (0:48)
  • You Disrespect My Oats (1:28)
  • Melanoff’s Factory (2:15)
  • I Want Her To Stay (2:36)
  • Parents Are Still Alive (1:28)
  • We Unite As Willoughbys (2:12)
  • The Perfect Family (1:26)
  • Willoughby Beast (1:38)
  • I’m Bustin You Out (4:01)
  • Escape (1:44)
  • Chase/Rainbow Zeppelin (4:56)
  • Follow The Yarn (3:03)
  • Defrosting The Parents/We’re All Going to Freeze (3:22)
  • The New Family (2:39)
  • Meat Mustache/Shark (1:22)

Running Time: 55 minutes 46 seconds

BMG Music (2020)

Music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. Conducted by John Ashton Thomas. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Dave Foster, Lorenzo Carrano, Geoff Lawson and , Jordan Seigel. Additional music by Mateo Messina, John Enroth, Albert Fox, Wataru Hokoyama, Tim Jones and Pete Siebert. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel and Nick Wollage. Edited by Dominick Certo. Album produced by Mark Mothersbaugh.

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  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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