'The Willoughbys': Film Review

The kids are all right.
4/22/2020

The four children of grotesquely egocentric, neglectful parents plot to make themselves orphans in this fizzy new animated family comedy from Netflix.

Imagine a Roald Dahl-type story of clever children circumventing monstrous adults, wrapped in a gothic tone of morbid absurdism not unlike Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Now add a visual sensibility that lands somewhere between Edward Gorey and Wes Anderson, air-drop the result into the "Sugar Rush" videogame from Wreck-It Ralph and press play. There's a lot going on in The Willoughbys, yet if you can get on board with its manic energy and accelerated plotting, the Netflix animated family comedy-adventure has an oddball charm that works surprisingly well.

Directed by Kris Pearn (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2) from a script he co-wrote with Mark Stanleigh, this adaptation of the 2008 children's book by Lois Lowry goes light on the old-fashioned kid-lit parody of its source material, arguably drawing greater inspiration from Home Alone.

The abundance of familiar elements costs it a few points for originality, but the film's blend of dark humor with warm sentiment and its whimsical celebration of the resourcefulness of children make for pleasing entertainment. "Imagination, determination and hope" are the qualities championed by the unloved Willoughby offspring, which are values that lockdown-weary parents should be happy to have their stir-crazy kids absorb.

Ricky Gervais gives voice to a sardonic blue tabby that kicks things off by explaining, "If you love stories about families that stick together, and love each other through thick and thin, and it all ends happily ever after, this isn't the film for you, OK?"

He directs our attention to a quaint Addams Family-style home wedged into a nook in a dense cityscape of steel and glass towers, "hidden away from the modern world." The clan that resides there dates back centuries, carrying a proud legacy of courage, invention and magnificent facial hair. But that greatness has come to a screeching halt with the latest generation, a simpering couple (voiced with posh sibilance by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) so besotted with each other they have no affection left for the children that keep appearing like distasteful intruders.

"If you need love, I beg of you to find it elsewhere," the father tells his first-born son Tim (Will Forte), who develops an early fascination with his ancestors and dreams of restoring the family's former glory. Next comes brainy, artsy Jane (Alessia Cara), who loves to sing, and twin boys both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen), correctly described as "creepy" by the cat, though blessed with great mechanical ingenuity. All four are spindly figures crowned with thick crimson mops of hair that resemble the yarn worked tirelessly by their knitting-obsessed mother.

The most basic request, like asking for food for himself and his siblings, earns Tim the Dickensian punishment of being locked in the coal bin. The Willoughby children risk even more ghastly treatment from their parents when they take in a foundling baby left in a box on their doorstep one dark and stormy night. "I wish we could kick them all out," sighs their mother.

The baby is such a hyper-agile handful that the kids need to find her a new home, so they venture out into the city and follow a rainbow to its end at a giant candy factory run by the eccentric Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews). Depositing the infant there, Tim names her Ruth, "because re-orphaning her makes us the Ruthless Willoughbys." That gives Jane the idea that they should orphan themselves by discarding their terrible parents — even if controlling Tim takes credit for it.

In a droll, hand-crafted sequence that would be right at home in a Wes Anderson movie, the children fashion a travel brochure to perilous destinations — "a romantic getaway hiding deadly orphaning opportunities" — ending at an unclimbable alp in Sweetzerland. Their parents are silly enough to buy it, though they hire a nanny to stop the kids from wrecking the house while they're gone.

Brandishing an umbrella like Mary Poppins but otherwise unqualified, their new Nanny (Maya Rudolph) is a zaftig nurturer with an outsize, heart-shaped 'fro. She turns out to be an ally, not an adversary, especially once she gets wind of the Willoughby parents' plan to continue their miraculously safe travels and sell the house. (In one of the funniest of the film's many frenetic action sequences, the kids set booby traps to deter potential buyers.) But the arrival of a fascistic troop from the Department of Orphan Services leads to the children being separated, prompting Tim to hatch a new plan to reunite them.

There's plenty of wit and wickedness in the zippy screenplay, with engaging work from the voice cast, notably former Saturday Night Live castmates Forte and Rudolph. The story might be borderline overstuffed, but even the most frantic action is kept aloft by a delightful score from Mark Mothersbaugh, which ranges from jazzy big-band sounds to techno funk. The composer's distinctive style, along with production designer Kyle McQueen's fabulously elaborate interiors for the Willoughby home, often make this seem like a toon version of The Royal Tenenbaums.

The climactic adventure, which features a giant candy dirigible spewing a rainbow jet stream, will be exciting for young viewers because although Nanny and Commander Melanoff are involved, it's the intrepid children who lead the way. And even in their moment of doom the kids' solidarity never falters, captured in Jane's lovely song, "I Choose You." It's refreshing also that the movie sticks to its guns in terms of the truly irredeemable nature of the Willoughby parents. But their conclusion is more likely to generate laughs than trauma.

The kids' discovery of the joy of belonging in an alternative family gives The Willoughbys a hint of sweet subversiveness, not to mention a welcome endorsement of inclusivity. Pearn's film doesn't deliver the warming emotional rush of a top-tier Pixar entry, but it's a cheerful pick-me-up.

Production companies: Bron Animation, in association with Creative Wealth Media
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Alessia Cara, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Sean Cullen, Ricky Gervais
Director: Kris Pearn
Co-director: Rob Lodermeier
Screenwriters: Kris Pearn, Mark Stanleigh, based on the novel by Lois Lowry
Producers: Brenda Gilbert, Luke Carroll
Executive producers: Aaron L. Gilbert, Ricky Gervais, Kris Pearn, Steven Thibault, Adam Davids, Teunis De Raat, Larry Bodnar, Justin Ottley, Jason Cloth, Richard McConnell
Director of photography: Sebastian Brodin
Production designer: Kyle McQueen
Editors: Fiona Toth, Ken Schretzmann
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Visual effects supervisor: Russell L. Smith
Character designer: Craig Kellman
Animation supervisor: Wesley Mandell 

Rated PG, 92 minutes