The Willoughbys review – oddball Netflix family fare

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Netflix and Bron’s new animated movie The Willoughbys whisks Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket up in its darkly cheerful concoction – here’s our review.

“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin and it all ends happily ever after, this isn’t the film for you, okay?” So begins executive producer Ricky Gervais’ narration of The Willoughbys, a Netflix original film that immediately plants its flag in the darkly funny territory once charted by Lemony Snicket and Roald Dahl.

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Lois Lowry, the second feature from American studio Bron Animation (they also brought us last year’s The Addams Family) follows three red-headed kids, Tim, (Will Forte) Jane, (Alessia Cara) and the twin Barnabys, (Seán Cullen) who live in their parents’ mansion. Denied childish wants like “food, clothes, and love”, the kids are fed up with their selfish Father (Martin Short) and Mother (Jane Krakowski) and their flouting of the stout, moustachioed Willoughby tradition of family adventuring.

The parents’ cruel treatment of another child in need proves to be the final straw, and in a subversion of where stories like this usually start, our heroes decide life would probably be better if they orphaned themselves. After launching an audacious plot to bump off their neglectful folks, Tim becomes dead set on evading the affections of their new nanny (Maya Rudolph) so that they can finally escape their miserable existence.

If nothing else, it’s a massively charming movie. When approaching a potentially dangerous situation early on, Jane recommends that the Barnabys zig-zag while they run so that no one can pin them down, and it almost feels like a mission statement for the film’s tempo. And yet, for all its hyperactive zig-zagging, director and co-writer Kris Pearn manages to keep the film from going off the deep end.

In terms of animation, it shares character designer Craig Kellman with The Addams Family and it shows, but its affected arts-and-crafts CG aesthetic will be most familiar to those who’ve watched DreamWorks’ Trolls films and Blue Sky’s Peanuts movie. The look of the film goes perfectly with its wacky and cartoonish sense of humour, which makes pratfalls and vehicular mayhem a constant in the background of its impeccably chaotic cityscape.

It’s utterly gorgeous to look at, but if there’s a problem, it’s that the candy-flavoured sunshine of the Willoughbys’ exploits doesn’t cast enough shadows. Where Dahl and Snicket shade in the less whimsical areas of their story for greater contrast, the edges are constantly being filed down or explained away here, whether by eccentric detours or snide interjections from Gervais’ feline narrator before you have much time to think about anything.

Happily, the film rights its course by the end, firmly defining redeemable and irredeemable behaviour without getting either too ghoulish or too sentimental. The constant movement may feel a bit squirrelly along the way, but that’s not necessarily a bad quality in a fast-paced family-friendly animation like this.

Perfect for watching at home, The Willoughbys manages to pack a lot of fun into its 92-minute running time. On first viewing, it should suit Despicable Me fans of all ages, but it’s a treat that may not prove quite as replayable over time. Nevertheless, it’s got a suitably deranged line in gallows humour and sight gags that should entertain viewers of all ages for at least one go around.

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