From the outset, Kris Pearn’s charming and off-kilter “The Willoughbys” makes its wacky worldview clear: This not your average fluffy and fuzzy kids’ story, and don’t let any of the genre’s usual trappings make you think otherwise. Sure, there’s a sarcastic cat narrator (amusingly voiced by Ricky Gervais), a pack of cute kids, a rickety old house, a whimsical nanny, and an adorable baby orphan. There’s even Terry Crews voicing a bizarre candy magnate. But “The Willoughbys” is different — or, perhaps, just different enough to stand out, as it sends up the vast assortment of kiddie stories about missing, dead, or just plain bad parents, and finds something fresh and funny in the process.
The movie is based on Lois Lowry’s novel of the same name, which also set out to upend tired expectations about kid-centric entertainment and the iffy parental figures that often populate them. Pearn’s animated Netflix version can’t help but embrace the kind of lessons endemic to entertainment aimed at little ones. The trick, however, is that the CG-animated film offers them up with tongue-in-cheek laughs and delightful self-referential humor that should appeal to audiences of all ages.
The eponymous Willoughbys, once a proud, if weirdly whimsical family — “every Willoughby had a mustache, even the women,” eldest son Tim announces — have crumbled into shadows of their former selves, including Mother (voiced by Jane Krakowski) and Father (voiced by Martin Short), who are solely interested in each other. The elder Willoughbys are profoundly unsuited to parenthood and not interested in giving love to their inevitable offspring, Tim (voiced by Will Forte), Jane (voiced by pop star Alessia Cara), and a set of “creepy” twins (voiced by a very funny Seán Cullen).
The wondrous legacy of the Willoughbys — which, given how much Mother and Father resemble each other, hints at decidedly non-kid-friendly schemes to keep their gene pool “all in the family” — still holds fascination for Tim, who tries to hold things together with good (if old-fashioned) humor. Jane is a dreamer prone to singing out her feelings (the constant trilling seems to be dedicated to showing off her own pipes; rather than adding much to Jane, it does eventually find narrative purpose), while the twin Barnabys (because why would the world’s worst parents bother to come up with two names when one will do?) are often pulled between their elder siblings.
The arrival of a mysterious package sets the plot into motion, eventually inspiring the young Willoughbys to break away from their bad parents and cook up a plan to “orphan themselves” by sending Mother and Father on a worldwide jaunt meant to threaten their lives at every turn. The film, though based on a single novel from Lowry, tends to feel episodic in its first half, zipping from important plot point and character introduction by way of individual vignettes — even meeting key supporting stars like kind Nanny (Maya Rudolph) and over-the-top candy king Commander Melanoff (Crews) feels choppy, to say nothing of a wacky segment beholden to “Home Alone” antics — but the loose threads pull together for a satisfying and sweet second half.
Even when narrative elements are lagging, the film’s lush animation — rendered in a warm, painterly quality, with plenty of attention to the many wild textures that populate its world — keeps the eye engaged. As the Willoughbys are forced out of their family home and made to explore new spaces, from a dizzying city to Melanoff’s fully functional factory and even a jaunt to far-off mountain peaks, “The Willoughbys” further expands into new locales worthy of attention. A nifty sense of scale enhances the storybook feel, and quick cuts fold in quirky jabs of humor, including a sequence that finds the kids crafting their very own fake travel agency.
The humor keeps the pace elsewhere too, including clever digs at other stories about MIA parents (it is, after all, how the Willoughbys conceive of their plan to jettison their parents), silly character introductions (Nanny may have zero experience with kids, but she’s got a “cheery disposition” to fill in the cracks), and the best joke about “Deliverance” to sneak into a children’s program since Steve Martin and Kermit had a banjo duel. It’s that sort of smart charm that pulls the film forward even when it temporarily falters, keeping up the good cheer until it eventually embraces the kind of feel-good storylines it rejects early on. Even better: it earns them, slightly skewed worldview and all.
“The Willoughbys” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Wednesday, April 22.