Courtesy of Netflix
A clever and imaginative animated adventure, Netflix’s “The Willoughbys” - based on the popular children’s books - arrives at an opportune time when families might be craving something else for the little ones to watch on repeat. Thankfully, there’s a good amount of cheery and silly humor that might subside adults too, but between this, “Klaus,” and “I Lost My Body,” the streaming behemoth is starting to carve out a nice chunk of animation real estate.
“The WIlloughbys” doesn’t touch the surface of what Pixar creates, nor does it scream “Oscar” material, but the budget is on scale with any of the big dogs. There are plenty of tricks hiding up its sleeves mixed with a story told at a hypercaffeinated pace designed to produce massive giggles from the kiddos: Including subtle callbacks to everything from “The Addams Family,” to “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” At times, “The Willoughbys” can seem like a mad grab for laughs, throwing a dozen ideas on the drawing pad and hoping something sticks, which leaves the film with a spat of an identity crisis, but then again that’s the basis for most of the movie.
You see, The Willoughby clan comes with a dense family history (don’t they all?) A tradition that sports many heroic, intelligent, and groundbreaking figures. That all comes to a crashing halt with the latest descendent: a selfish and egotistical man and his agonizing wife. They don’t like children, but end up birthing four who grew up with constant reminders of how unwanted they were. Over the course of the film an unusual set of events transpire involving a small baby and a candy factory that emboldens the children to create their own scheme: orphaning themselves to harbor a better life.
Not exactly heartwarming motifs for a children’s film, amplified by a series of hilarious montages in which the kids envision their parents getting axed in numerous ways. Narrated by a cat voiced by the one and only Ricky Gervais, we’re told from the start this isn’t your average kids movie, and that happy endings don’t exist. This is in contrast to the often fluffy and vibrant colors that ooze from the frames which, if you’ve seen director Kris Pearn’s “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” shouldn’t surprise you. Part of me wishes the film had leaned into those darker elements.
Pearns film moves at a frenetic pace, often getting lost in it’s own wishful thinking: but it does feature some nifty ingenuity, specifically the organization responsible for orphaned children who prance around like the “Men In Black” and dress like Mr. Smith from “The Matrix:” references the little ones won’t understand. Another notch on “The WiIloughbys” belt is a stellar voice cast comprised of comedy veterans: Will Forte lends his vocals to the older kid brother, meanwhile Martin Short and Jane Krakowski have a blast as the maniacal parental units, though, Forte - at 49 years old - doesn’t mesh entirely with “Moana” actor Alessia Cara who voices the younger sister. But the real show-stealer belongs to Canadian actor Sean Cullen, voice of the Barnaby Twins, which is this movie's basic equivalent to Thing One and Thing Two (a running gag involves the two constantly sharing/switching the same sweater because their parents refused to buy them each one, I’m ashamed to admit I laughed several times).
All these talented character actors inject the script with a much needed dose of humor, cementing “The Willoughbys” as a must-see during these trying times. As long as you embrace the film's cheeky imaginative tactics, it should go down quite smoothly. The world can be a cold place, as the narrator likes to remind us, but all it takes is some Willoughby determination to heat things up again.
THE WILLOUGHBYS will be streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday April 22nd.