The Willoughbys (4 stars)

The Willoughbys

Enjoyably deranged, Roald Dahl-resembling animation that boasts a fine voice cast

Narrated by Ricky Gervais in cuddly blue cat form, The Willoughbys wants you to know it ain't no ordinary kids' film, as it signposts its cynicism from the outset. It's deliciously deranged family fare in the mould of Roald Dahl, with wicked parents, neglected children, nefarious authorities and super-sized saviours.

There's more than a touch of Wes Anderson, too, in this animated adaptation of Lois Lowry's 2008 novel from director Kris Pearn, who last called the shots on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 – a film which hands its baton of anarchy onto its successor. It's the story of the titular clan, a family for whom 'greatness passed down from generation to generation. Until this one.'

With dastardly parents (voiced by Jane Krakowski and Martin Short) who only have eyes for each other, and don't even feel obliged to feed them, the quartet of kids – Will Forte's Tim, Alessia Cara's Jane, twin boys who are both called Barnaby, voiced by Seán Cullen – fend admirably for themselves. Eager to be orphaned, the exasperated offspring pack their folks off on a dangerous world tour and keep their fingers firmly crossed.

When a nanny arrives to assist (Maya Rudolph's qualification-less Linda, who admits she comes cheap but points to her cheery disposition as compensation) it doesn't bode brilliantly, though she wins over Jane and the Barnabys. But Tim's not so sure. Meanwhile, their parents manage to cheat death at every turn and a potential house sale, stray baby and lonely confectionary king add further complications.

The Willoughbys is a lively farce, too silly to ever be nasty, and chock-full of quirky detail, mischief and sight gags. The family pad is rich with visual interest and there's a great scene where it's rigged with traps, Home Alone-style, during an open house. Although intentionally madcap, the story can be messily assembled; Terry Crews's Commander Melanoff and his magical candy factory are a joy but feel tacked on.

Nevertheless, the casting is outstanding and the character design (recognisably the work of Craig Kellman of Madagascar, Hotel Transylvania and The Addams Family fame) is fun; with her lip-gloss, freckles and buoyant afro groomed into the shape of a heart, the bouncy Nanny is a particularly loveable creation and not unlike the mighty Rudolph herself. Features like the family's sharp little noses and knitted barnets might have been more enjoyably brought to life by stop-motion, rather than the flatter computer-animated method employed here. Yet, overall, it's a likeably tart, whole-family-pleaser about finding the fizz when life leaves you lemons.

Available to watch now on Netflix.

The Willoughbys

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • Canada / US
  • 1h 32min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Kris Pearn
  • Cast: Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Alessia Cara, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Seán Cullen, Ricky Gervais
  • UK release: 22 April 2020