Though it may not be the most prudent choice during these shelter-in-place days to gather the kids for a flick about tyrannical parents and their children’s garish plot to “off” them, Netflix’s latest animated feature The Willoughbys is so bright and fun, it’s quite possible that your offspring may just enjoy it for what it is… and not as a springboard to orphan themselves.
Based on Lois Lowry’s popular 2008 novel, the film is a sugar-rush hybrid of Matilda and Lemony Snicket animated in the style of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. No, there’s not much in the way of subtlety and nuance at play here—the wall-to-wall technicolor dream show would likely make even Venellope von Schweetz cry uncle—but in director and co-writer Kris Pearn’s able hands, The Willoughbys explodes onto your television screen as a perfectly enjoyable and wildly inventive 90 minutes of craziness.
We begin with a warning from our feline narrator (voiced by Ricky Gervais) that if you enjoy stories about families that love each other, well… this is not the film for you. Instead, it is the tale of the ultimate dysfunctional clan—characterized as much by their callousness (at least in recent years) as by their bushy red facial hair. Father (Martin Short) and Mother (Jane Krakowski) love each other dearly. So dearly, in fact, that they have none left over for their children Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and twins Barnaby and Barnaby (Seán Cullen).
When the youngsters attempt to bring a baby abandoned on their doorstep into the house, their mother and father banish them all until they have gotten rid of it. Reluctantly, the kids head out to find a new home for the tyke and eventually wind up at the Melanoff Candy Factory, where they leave the baby and instantly realize that being an orphan has its benefits.
Back home, Tim, Jane, and the Barnabys collectively launch a plan to send their parents off on a perilous adventure, confident in the fact that it will lead to their horrible, grisly death, thereby leaving the children themselves to savor life as orphans. Complicating matters, though, is the arrival of boisterous nanny Linda (Maya Rudolph), eager real estate agent Irene (Nancy Robertson), and, of course, Orphan Services (and their motto: “We Correct Where You Went Wrong”).
Naturally, this all leads to a jailbreak (via oatmeal cart), a hot air balloon ride to Sveetzerlünd, and the shark-infested waters of the wide, wide sea (how could it not, right?). And while it’s true the film doesn’t (and, frankly, shouldn’t) make a whole lot of sense and sometimes gets too scattered for even a hepped-up ten-year-old to follow, there’s still plenty to love. With blink-and-you-miss-them gags about everything from Banksy to Deliverance, The Willoughbys feels like a kids-first flick that Pearn and his team wanted to cram full of parent-friendly humor, too. And on that count, they succeed. Still, parents, you may just want to watch your back, or, at the very least, refrain from tossing your children into the basement coal bin. Who knows what quarantine can lead little kids to do.