‘The Willoughbys’: Netflix’s Zany Animated Comedy Is a Sugar Rush of an Adventure

In the tradition of films like “Matilda” and Rob Reiner’s “North,” the lively Netflix family feature “The Willoughbys” explores the plight of children who want to break free from their awful parents. Based on a book by illustrious children’s author Lois Lowry, “The Willoughbys” differs from this other films by being animated, allowing director/co-writer Kris Pearn the freedom to push his imagination to the limit, and the result is an eye-catching, sugar rush of a film.

Narrated by a sardonic cat (Ricky Gervais), “The Willoughbys” tells of an upper-class family from an impressive lineage. Precocious oldest son Tim (Will Forte) lives in an “old-fashioned” NYC home with his more hopeful sister Jane (singer Alessia Cara, who shows off her pipes here), and their mischievous twin brothers, both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen). Unfortunately for them, greatness has skipped their parents’ generation, as Father (Martin Short) and Mother (Jane Krakowski) are self-absorbed and neglectful, as they are too obsessed with each other to pay attention to their kids. If the film wasn’t so animated and whimsical, it would be a stark tale of abhorrent child abuse, as the Willoughbys can’t even be bothered to feed their kids most nights, and if they complain at all, they are thrown into a coal bin.

The upside to all this neglect is that the Willoughby children have become rather resourceful. After a baby orphan turns up in a box on their doorstep, Tim does what he feels is the rational thing, and that is to leave the babe, whom they name Ruth, on the doorstep of a local candy titan, Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews). Afterwards, the siblings find themselves feeling jealous of little orphan Ruth and her new life, which leads them to concoct a plan to “orphan themselves.” In lieu of going all Menedez on their folks (this is a film for kids, after all), they hatch a plan to send their parents on an exotic vacation, hoping that nature will take care of them. What they didn’t count on was having Mother and Father hire a nanny, the cheery and inexperienced Linda (Maya Rudolph).

Just like any kid who has been abused, Tim has trust issues, and it takes him some time to warm up to Linda. Desperate for affection (and some hot food), Jane and the Barnabys are easily won over by the kindhearted new authority figure. Things thaw between her and Tim when he sees how much she cares about the welfare of the children, not just the Willoughbys, but also Ruth, whom she insists they check in on. In a twist, she ends up having chemistry with Commander Melanoff, a loner bachelor who is revealed to have a big heart.

Complications arise after Mother and Father decide to sell the house, and a chain of events lead to the children being hunted down by the Department of Orphan Services, an organization filled with nefarious employees. In order to stay together, they must do the unthinkable — build a giant flying contraption in Commander Melanoff’s candy factory and find their parents themselves.

Overall, “The Willoughbys” is a fun adventure that viewers of all ages can appreciate, with its zany action, stunning animation, and heartfelt message about what constitutes a family. It also explores what abused children go through in a way that’s sensitive yet not too dark.

The Willoughbys”  begins streaming April 22 on Netflix.