To quote The Cat (voiced by Ricky Gervais) who narrates Netflix’s new animated film, The Willoughbys, “The best stories are the hard ones.” He also warns, early on, that this isn’t your typical happily-ever-after tale. While a bit of a misdirect, this is strange and dark and ominous in the way many of the best kids movies are. By turns, it’s harrowing and joyous, fun and chaotic, and while earnest and giddy, it’s messy and jumbled.
Life for the Willoughby kids sucks. Their parents, voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, are selfish and self-absorbed and have no time for childish things, like children. Neglected and abused, the siblings—timid, rational Tim (Will Forte), adventurous songstress Jane (Alessia Cara), and creepy young twins Barnaby and Barnaby (Sean Cullen)—fend for themselves in the grand tradition of Dickensian orphans, banished to a coal storage room, begging for leftover scraps of food from their parents. It’s grim, bleak stuff. When they decide they’d be better off as actual orphans, they devise a plan to send their parents on a vacation where every stop comes with a high probability of parental death.
From this setup, The Willoughbys careens all over the place, wild and disjointed. At times it’s like chucking a superball against the wall of a small room and trying to track its hyperkinetic movement. We jump from trying to off their parents to getting rid of a baby they find in a box to dealing with an oatmeal-obsessed Nanny (Maya Rudolph) who’s understandably horrified by their situation to a sweets factory run by a jolly candy commander (Terry Crews) to getting lost in the institutional bureaucracy of the foster care system. And so much more. It’s a non-stop onslaught that’s frankly, at times, overwhelming.
With characters designed by Craig Kellerman, who’s responsible for the look of movies like Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania, there’s a familiarity, but Canadian studio Bron Animation creates a unique, inventive aesthetic and stylization. The Willoughbys bounces from bright and festive to dour and unnerving, depending on the circumstances. A score from Devo mastermind and prolific film composer, Mark Mothersbaugh, adds another off-kilter layer to the whole picture.
The Willoughbys voice cast is fantastic. Short and Krakowski give the parents the perfect upper-crust affectations and ill-temper. I still can’t believe Will Forte voices Tim, even knowing it’s him, it’s difficult to tell. Cara, most known as a singer, threatens to burst into song throughout, though never fully does, with one exception. Creepy twins need creepy voices, and Cullen plays them monotone and often in stereo as their dialogue ping pongs back and forth, speaking as one entity. Crews doesn’t get as much to do as others, but he clearly has a good time, though not as much fun Rudolph, who digs into her boisterous, good-natured Nanny with relish.
While obviously aimed at kids—based as it is on a children’s book by Lois Lowry—and full of frenetic action and goofy antics, adults will find much to enjoy in The Willoughbys on Netflix. An engaging adventure on its own, the script is also littered with Easter eggs that are not child-centric. There’s a Banksy joke, a Deliverance gag, Shakespearean references, and an overt reference to Darwinism, among many other unexpected nuggets.
Zinging around as the narrative does, the pace is a herky-jerky affair, up and down from one moment to the next. Stop and start barely begins to describe the situation. A few moments fall flat, like the let’s-get-rid-of-the-new-Nanny ploy, but it rarely slows down for long, sprinting to the next complication, dragging the audience along ready or not. There’s no need to worry about attention spans here, because by the time you settle into a scene, The Willoughbys is moving onto the next scenario. A few random elements never develop or go anywhere, though with the exhausting forward momentum, it’s easy to skip over these and let them slide.
Beneath all the bright, flashing eye candy, both literal and figurative, and a serious dark streak, The Willoughbys offers a sweet, heartfelt meditation on family. But not about the family you’re given, the family you make. It’s all about finding your family, choosing your own. It’s chaotic and messy, but earnest and sweet, much like most families. At the heart of the movie is the fact that a family doesn’t have to be perfect to be a perfect family, and it ultimately becomes the type of sugary movie it initially claims not to be.