The Willoughbys review – affable animation has a few sharp edges

Netflix's latest animated offering, based on the book of the same name, is fun and expressive, but doesn't quite break new ground

Netflix’s animation team had a banner year in 2019, what with producing Klaus and distributing the wonderful I Lost My Body, two imaginative and uniquely-styled films that both ended up nominated for an Oscar. Their first high-profile animated release of 2020, The Willoughbys, can’t match either of those films in terms of quality, but it’s still a fun romp for families with younger kids, bolstered by endearing, pop-up picture book-esque animation.

Based on a novel by children’s author Lois Lowry, The Willoughbys tries to pack a lot in to its 90 minute runtime. At its core, it is about the four Willoughby children and the struggles they endure at the hands of their selfish, incompetent parents. The Willoughby family was once a proud dynasty, but the current generation, the unnamed Mother (Jane Krakowski) and Father (Martin Short) have let that fall into ruin. They have no ambitions to do anything other than eat and knit and be a bit creepy, and Father can’t even grow the giant moustache that should define a Willoughby face.

Starved of both attention and food, the kids, led by older brother Tim (Will Forte), lead a meagre existence until someone drops a hyper-mobile baby – think The Incredibles’ Jack-Jack on a major sugar high – at their doorstep. Upon finding the orphan a home, Tim and his sister Jane (Alessia Cara) devise a plan to orphan themselves, allowing them to begin a new, better life. Already quite busy with this plot and all the necessary world-building, The Willoughbys then adds new players in the form of a kind-hearted Nanny (Maya Rudolph), a giant candy mogul (Terry Crews), and a series of Agent Smith-like drone soldiers working for the Department of Orphan Services.

It’s incredibly hectic, and there’s a decent chance you’ll lose track of exactly where you are in the story at a couple of points, but the stylish, colourful animation holds your attention. Character designs are expressive, halfway between charming and grotesque, while environments have a handcrafted feel that makes the world tangible. All of the best gags are visual, especially in a fun montage of Mother and Father on the fatally perilous world tour that the kids trick them into taking.

Script-wise, The Willoughbys hardly breaks new ground – it’s all incredibly A Series Of Unfortunate Events, right on down to a sardonic and meddling narrator (in this case a blue cat voiced by Ricky Gervais). To its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from the darkness inherent to a plot based around child neglect and parenticide, even if this darkness can feel a little incongruous next to the slapstick humour and occasional sing-song schmaltziness. Of course, The Willoughbys is never too bleak for too long – it is targeted specifically at children, without concessions to teens or grown-ups – but parents fearing an overly saccharine experience needn’t worry.

The Willoughbys won’t capture hearts like a Pixar offering, nor is it likely to be a permanent fixture in homes like a more bombastic Disney animation, but for families looking for something fresh, it has its own charms. A sweet and amusing balance of light and dark, it’s something of a bridge between child-friendly and young adult, a fun first step towards a more democratic family movie night.

The Willoughbys is now streaming on Netflix.

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