“The Willoughbys” is a kids’ cartoon conceived in that no-kids-land, the border country between “Yellow Submarine” and, oh, “Hotel Transylvania 3.”
There’s whimsy and originality in the design and animation, and a trip to rehab in the screenplay.
No, having Ricky Gervais as the almost-snarky narrator-cat, give us an opening speech about what sort of story it WASN’T going to be, all sweet and cuddly and kid-pandering, doesn’t atone for that.
It starts promisingly, builds towards something Roald Dahl cutting and cute, and kind of comes to pieces, like crumb cake.
It’s about a family of gingers — self-absorbed upper-class twits, The Willoughbys, who have been history’s leaders, warriors and adventurers. But the water’s run out of the gene pool, and the couple we meet as “Father” (Martin Short) and “Mother” (Jane Krakowski), are happily holed up in a midtown Oceania (neither British, nor American, just…Orwellian) house where they dance and kiss and coo and knit.
Until the kids arrive. Tim (Will Forte) is the first. And he’s read the Riot Act by Dear Old Dad right at the get-go.
“If you need love, I beg of you, find it elsewhere!”
Jane (Alessia Cara) and the twins, both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen) follow. Same deal. The parents are totally self-involved, and into each other — not the kiddies.
There’s a bold statement for a PG-rated cartoon. Married happiness ends when the children show up.
The couple “eat TODAY’S food. You rat YESTERDAY’S food.”
No wonder Tim is drawn rail-thin. Jane is in the habit of singing what her present state of mind and situation are, which just earns rebukes from Mother.
Yes kids, some people NEVER should have children.
The script somewhat pointlessly drops a baby, Baby Ruth, on their doorstep. They “re-orphan” her at a candy factory run by Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews).
Then Tim and Jane hatch a scheme to save them all. They’ll invent a travel agency that can book their neglectful parents on a long trip. “What if we orphaned ourselves.”
Only the parents hire a rotund, rambunctious Nanny (Maya Rudolph) to “care” for them, something they’ve never done. Well, aside from the red wigs Mother has knitted for the quartet.
Nanny sings — “ALL nannies sing!” — cooks and carries on, but Tim isn’t having this usurping of his rule of the “family.” That leads to the Sorrow and the Pity. Or its animated equivalent.
It’s a chatty movie with a few complex ideas and a lot of bigger words than your average child animation fan would know. With Mr. Gervais on board, is this some sort of satire aimed more at adults?
If it is, here are the two places I laughed. The kids head to the candy factory “at the end of the rainbow” (Stay off drugs, screenwriters). Tim notes “This is the BAD part of town.”
A homeless guy starts picking out the music to “Dueling Banjos.”
Another grown up gag? The parents catch a little public radio, at some point, and the distinct feminine affectations of Ira Glass (“This American Life”) pop up — navel-gazing radio for the hopelessly self-involved.
I almost laughed at the giddily greedy realtor the parents hire — mid-trip — to sell their house (kids NOT included) for them.
So while there’s wit in the design, and the animation is up to snuff, this is no “Klaus,” no obvious sign that Netflix is ready to give Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony Animation or Blue Sky a run for their money. Hiring directors with “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2)” and “Space Chimps” experience did not help.
Why they didn’t just write a check to Laika (“Coraline,” “Paranorman”) or another check to Aardman (“Sean the Sheep”) escapes me.
MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor and some thematic elements
Cast: The voices of Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Alessia Cara, Terry Crews and Jane Krakowski
Running time: 1:32