Based on a book by Lois Lowry, “The Willoughbys,” a new animated film now available on Netflix, is a parody of “old fashioned” classic children’s stories where terrible things happen, babies are abandoned, long-lost relatives show up and nannies look after the kids. Yet somehow, a happy ending and a lesson or two always emerge from the chaos.
Narrated by Ricky Gervais—”I’m the narrator. And a cat. Get over it, yeah.”—the story takes place at the Willoughby mansion, a home tucked away between two skyscrapers, hidden from the modern world. The family has a long and distinguished legacy of tradition, invention creativity and courage. “Their greatness passed down from generation to generation like their magnificent facial hair,” says the narrator, “until this one.” Enter the youngest son (Martin Short) and his new bride (Jane Krakowski). Madly in love, they only have eyes for one another. They don’t even care for their kids. “I am your father and that woman in there you insulted with your rude burp is your mother,” father says to eldest son Tim (Will Forte). “If you need love, I beg of you, find it elsewhere. Thank you.”
All they gave Tim was their name, and siblings Jane (Alessia Cara) and twins, both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen). “Let’s face it this Willoughby family isn’t great,” says the narrator, “and by the looks of it, they never will be. Not without a little help.”
So the kids hatch a plan to create a better life for themselves. “We can send them away!” says Tim. “What if we orphaned ourselves? We shall craft a murderous adventure that gives our insidious parents exactly what they want.” “To be left alone with their love!” says Jane.
Tim concocts a “a romantic get-a-way hiding deadly orphaning opportunities. If they do not melt in the hottest places on earth, they shall drown in the wettest. Cannibals will feast on them unless they freeze in glacial ice.” They create a travel brochure from the Reprehensible Travel Agency—No Children Allowed!—and make sure the folks see it. They love the plan but fear the children will destroy the house. The solution? Get a nanny. “But aren’t good nannies expensive?” wonders mom. “Yes, so we’ll hire a not good nanny! For cheap!” says father.
Thus, begins a wild adventure for mom, dad and the kids.
“The Willoughbys” It’s not as dark as “A Series of Unfortunate Events” or as magical as “Mary Poppins.” Instead it finds its own tone, deriving much humour from the dire circumstances. “If you like stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin,” says the cat narrator, “and it all ends up happily ever after, this isn’t the film for you OK?” Director and co-writer Kris “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” Pearn energizes the story with characters that look like they’re shaped out of bubble gum; colourful and highly stylized. Then he puts them in constant motion. It’s frenetic and fun, even when the kids are plotting to kill their parents.
There’s strong voice work from Will Forte, Alessia Cara, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short and Terry Crews but Gervais and his droll narration steals the show. “It’s hard to leave home for the first time,” he says, “although I was six days old when I left. All my folks ever did for me was lick my eyeballs open and sent me packing.”
“The Willoughbys” isn’t remarkably original story wise. It mixes and matches from a variety of sources. There’s a taste of Roald Dahl, a hint of “Despicable Me” and a dollop of “Mary Poppins,” but, all spun together, they form a delightfully dark (but not too dark) story about finding the true value of family.