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‘The Willoughbys’ offers wild, weird family fun

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When we think about movies for kids, we tend to have fairly specific ideas about them in terms of their style. You hear “kids’ movie,” you probably think about bright colors and simple narratives and a general levity with regards to tone. And a lot of child-oriented stories hew closely to those criteria.

A lot, but by no means all. There’s plenty of darkness to be found in children’s stories. From the bleakness prevalent in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, there have been shadows mixed in with the sunshine.

Because here’s the thing: kids LIKE some darkness alongside the light.

The new Netflix animated film “The Willoughbys,” based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, very much embraces that dichotomy. While it is rife with candy-colored goofiness and silly set pieces, there are some underlying themes that are legitimately dark. The balance between the two is what makes the movie work – too much of one or the other would undermine the whole thing.

It’s a story of what it truly means to be a family, as well as of the sacrifices that can be required to do right by the people we love. It also explores the consequences that can come from thoughtless decisions regarding those loved ones. Plus, it’s a great-looking film based on strong source material and featuring an absolutely killer voice cast.

The Willoughbys are a proud family with a noble history, with generations of great men and women – explorers and statesmen and the like, all marked with magnificent mustaches. The current iteration of the family, however, doesn’t quite live up to the clan’s storied past.

Father (Martin Short, TV’s “The Morning Show”) and Mother (Jane Krakowski, TV’s “Dickinson”) are so wrapped up in their own selfish needs that they neglect and actively scorn their children – musical, thoughtful Jane (pop singer Alessia Cara in her feature debut), genius twin weirdoes Barnaby and Barnaby (Sean Cullen, “The 20th Century”) and eldest son Tim (Will Forte, “Good Boys”). Tim is the erstwhile leader of the kids, striving desperately (and failing utterly) to guide his parents toward the example set by past generations of Willoughbys.

When a baby is left on their doorstep, the Willoughby children seek to find a home for the infant, ultimately taking it to a candy factory and leaving it in the care of factory director Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews, TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). This inspires the children – perhaps they could orphan themselves, breaking free from their terrible parents?

A scheme is hatched, wherein Father and Mother are sent on a wildly dangerous round-the-world journey. However, there’s a hiccup, in the form of Nanny (Maya Rudolph, “Wine Country”), who has been hired on the cheap to look after the kids. The Willoughby kids are skeptical, but Nanny quickly wins them over – all but Tim, who refuses to let go of his suspicion.

But it turns out that being an orphan isn’t everything they dreamed it would be. It isn’t long before a few poorly-considered decisions put the Willoughby kids in real danger of being not just without parents, but without each other. It’s going to take a crazy scheme that involves the talents of every child for there to be any chance that this odd little family can have its happily ever after.

Yeah – this movie gets dark.

We’ll start with the obvious. The “ill-fated parents” trope is so common in kids’ movies that it’s practically a cliché at this point. However, we rarely see it in this context, where the young protagonists are themselves actively plotting the demise of their progenitors. And the ridiculously overwrought mistreatment thing has been happening from the beginnings of our favorite fairy tales. There are a couple of scenes that might prove to be a little intense for very young viewers, though it’s all handled with a comedic lightness that allows the humor to shine through.

Mostly, though, “The Willoughbys” is ridiculous, silly fun. There are a handful of over-the-top set pieces that are a lot of fun, as well as a couple of good montages and some delightful moments of subverted expectations. The sight gags are solid and the jokes are decent while still maintaining age-appropriateness. It’s got a great aesthetic, as well – visually, it’s very distinct. Meanwhile, the baseline theme of the importance of family – however that winds up being defined – is an almost exclusively positive one.

And again – that cast. Forte leads the way as the almost painfully earnest Tim; he has a real knack for projecting pure sincerity in a laugh-generating manner. Cara is good as well – there’s a running bit about aborted efforts to break into song that’s especially delightful. Cullen is great as the low-talking Barnabys. Rudolph is glorious as usual as Nanny, injecting her trademark joie de vivre into every line. Short and Krakowski are perfectly off-putting as Father and Mother, while Crews is a hoot as Commander Melanoff, happy as a clam and sounding vaguely stunned. Oh, and Ricky Gervais is a cat who is also the narrator – forgot to mention that part.

All in all, “The Willoughbys” is a pretty good time. The narrative goes a bit awry occasionally; there are spots where it briefly leaves the rails. And again – it does get perhaps a touch TOO dark for really young viewers. But it’s undeniably fun, with a fantastic and engaging visual aesthetic – loads of bright colors and silliness. Add to that a simply dynamite cast giving strong performances across the board and you’ve got animated fare that is absolutely worth a look.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Friday, 24 April 2020 10:51

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