Cruelly neglectful parents and relentless slapstick in a loud, frantic package. Meet “The Willoughbys.”
The newest Netflix animated feature is based on the children’s book by award-winning author Lois Lowry (“The Giver”). In it, the progeny of despicably self-absorbed parents plot to orphan themselves for a chance at happiness. They trick the mother and father (voiced by Jane Krakowski and Martin Short, respectively) into a trip laden with death traps. Meanwhile, kids Tim (Will Forte), Jane (singer Alessia Cara) and twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B (Seán Cullen) leave a found baby with a mysterious rich guy (Terry Crews), meet a nanny who may actually care for them (Maya Rudolph) and eventually decide to save their awful parents.
The kids-on-their-own-in-a-scary-world scenario may ring some bells, especially among Lemony Snicket fans, but “The Willoughbys” (the film, anyway) doesn’t have the crazed wit of those works. The book apparently makes hay with echoes of other novels, presumably Dickensian or Dahl-ish ones, and includes Edward Gorey-inspired illustrations, but those aesthetics aren’t present here. Rather than slap-happy puns or sly cultural references, we get head-scratching exchanges such as “I definitely hear something.” “Is it a some or a thing?” “It is a some and a thing!” — and “It’s like a yard of graves.” The film’s bright colors and blaring happy music may not be enough for viewers to overcome the rather unfunny themes of neglect (“Back up the abuse caboose”) routinely excused in more engaging fare.
There are some appealing vocal performances. Short is comically debauched as the dad. Crews is cuddly as the Captain Crunch/Willy Wonka figure (he should do more animated work; he has the big voice and energy for it). Rudolph is good in everything and owns one of the movie’s more charming moments, though a throwaway, when she and Jane start scatting together.
But despite the overwrought physical comedy and cartoony character design that shares DNA with “Hotel Transylvania,” it’s hard to tell whom the intended audience is — especially with references to “Deliverance” and tardigrades. The release is probably well-timed. Right now, there are plenty of families that can use a noisy, candy-hued distraction.
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix on April 22