Seeking something fresh, fun, and funky? Welcome to The Willoughbys, an outrageous animated adventure about strange siblings, rainbow dreams, and attempted parenticide.
Based on Lois Lowry’s beloved children’s book, The Willoughbys begins with the titular clan, whose greatness, ingenuity, and creativity stretch back generation after generation. The only thing greater than their legacy is their fantastically bold mustaches that grow enormous, proud, and a vibrant red. Young Tim Willoughby (Will Forte) dreams of achieving mustachioed greatness, but his parents offer no path for that. They are eschewing eons of tradition by treating their children as pestering pets. Father (Martin Short) and Mother (Jane Krakowski) only have enough love for each other. They’ll purr in delight over the other’s puns, and she’ll use any sprig of his facial hair to spin into knitting projects. But they have no scraps of love left for their eldest Tim, their music-loving and mischievous daughter Jane (Alessia Cara), and their tinkering twin sons (Seán Cullen), who share one single sweater and also one name: Barnaby. Begging for scraps of love, food, and affection, the Willoughby children begin to wonder if they’d be better off as orphans. So, they plot to become just that.
The quartet of quirky kids is not planning to murder their repellant parents. Instead, they plot an adults-only globe-trotting tour of deeply deadly destinations, like active volcanos, barracuda-infested rivers, and hot acid springs. With their parents away, the kids learn to play, thanks to a loving nanny (Maya Rudolph) with plenty of personality. Together, they’ll set out to learn the true meaning of family.
Director Kris Pearn (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2) creates a wild world for his Willoughbys that’s full of color, humor, and eccentricities. Their home is a Victorian marvel, complete with high-ceilinged ballrooms, cavernous libraries, old-fashioned kitchens, and a musty coal cellar. Its garden grows with flowers beautiful yet oddly foreboding, and every inch of its inside is plastered in decadent details, like posh portraits, ornate wallpaper, hunting trophies, and framed mustaches. It’s the kind of place children could cause all kinds of damage with their “childish needs.” Which is precisely why it’s so fun to watch the Willoughbys frolic parent-free.
However, the world outside these walls is even grander. With their caring nanny, the kids venture to a colorful candy factory run by a Willy Wonka type (Terry Crews). They’ll combat steely social workers who look like they plucked their uniforms and attitudes from The Matrix’s Agent Smith. They’ll set out on a grand quest on a DIY dirigible airship. Every step of this journey is radiant in color, and every beat bounces with humor.
There are scads of visual gags that make comedy out of kissing, snatching meatloaf, and mustache sprouting. An outlandish action sequence gets goofy as a pair of overwhelmed caretakers chase down a sugar-fueled baby as if she were a speeding getaway car. Pearn and his animation team make a meal out of a Home Alone-inspired montage where the Willoughbys weaponize their house and trinkets to scare off prospective buyers. On top of all this is an incredible voice cast.
Forte brings a wide-eyed eagerness to Tim, which sometimes sparks into petty outrage that recalls the comedy star’s hilarious tantrums from Last Man on Earth. Canadian singer Alessia Cara brings a spunkiness along with her central song, making Jane a winsome free-spirit. Cullen gamely leans into playing the “creepy” twins, and makes every “Mommy” a spine-tingling utterance. Rudolph channels her famed bravado and warmth into Nanny, creating a challenger to Mary Poppins’ crown. Short and Krakowski bring zing and an almost unnerving sexual tension as terrible parents. Then there’s Ricky Gervais.
The English comedian once known for subversive jibes has grown stale, leaning into a naughty boy routine that’s become dully predictable. Take that tired schtick, put it in a cat, and you have his role in The Willoughbys. With a bored expression and Gervais’s eye-rolling tone, the cat looks to camera and scolds the audience for any alarm of the film’s homicidal premise, “Okay, humans, don’t get all sensitive…it’s nature. It’ll work out.” Each interjection by Gervais is a bit tedious, as it doesn’t feel like a character within the wonderful and weird world of The Willoughbys, as much as it feels like A BRIEF INTERRUPTION FROM THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW! Still, as tedious as his bits are, I actually completely forgot about them and him until I rewatched the trailer ahead of writing this review. So, Gervais’s Lemony Sniggering isn’t lastingly souring.
All in all, The Willoughbys is a rollicking romp that’s unapologetically bonkers and welcomes audiences into a world of adventure. It’s dark yet joyful, funny yet heartfelt. While it begins with a horridly dysfunctional home, its journey is about the siblings discovering the glory of a chosen family. All this makes for a delightful diversion that’s sure to please the whole family.
The Willoughbys is available now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix