The Willoughbys tries to straddle the line between being playfully grim and downright bizarre but, instead, alternates from being one or the other. Based on Lois Lowry’s children’s book and evoking memories of stranger family fare like James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Willoughbys is a unique endeavour that will make you laugh as much as it will straight-up weird you out.
The Willoughbys’ family name used to hold meaningful heritage, but it has since been sullied by selfish behaviour by neglectful nameless parents (Martin Short, Jane Krakowski). Their fed up children Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and the Barnaby twins (Seán Cullen) try and fend for themselves, but it’s an uphill battle for basic necessities and recognition. In a last ditch effort for happiness, the kids devise a plan to send their rotten parents on a “permanent vacation” which includes backpacking through treacherous destinations. The parents fall for the charade, but the kids aren’t alone for long; accompanied by a hired nanny (Maya Rudolph) whose boisterous demeanour is a big adjustment for Tim’s perfectionist standards.
The young Willoughbys go on a few adventures with their eccentric nanny; sometimes involving an orphaned baby with incredible agility, sometimes including a candy commander (Terry Crews), and sometimes running for their lives from child protection agents who want to relocate parentless kids. These wild rides are animated with traditional storybook qualities and fantastic “pop-up” flare that feel like Lois Lowry’s book has truly come to life – much like how Blue Sky Studios reimagined Charles Schulz’s precocious kids in The Peanuts Movie.
There’s an odd contrast in The Willoughbys’ visual presentation though. While the animation is vibrant, it doesn’t match with how dour the material is. I suppose this stylistic mismatch was supposed to give The Willoughbys its own identity, but it feels like the film can’t decide what type of movie it wants to be, and what audience it primarily wants to please. And if the film is ever too caught up in its own confusion, a strange joke slides in to divert our attention and break up the scramble. Mostly on behalf of Seán Cullen’s spaced-out twins, a feline narrator voiced by Ricky Gervais, or Martin Short’s throat-gargling mating call; all of which are not *as* funny as the film thinks they are.
The film may remind audiences of The Peanuts Movie on a visual level, but those expecting an equally wholesome film will have a hard time engaging with The Willoughbys, a film that could also be really scary and off-putting for certain kids. But for viewers expecting a movie cut from the same gothic cloth as the Lemony Snicket canon, they’ll certainly fill their quota for kook and quirk with The Willoughbys.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie