Eldest Willoughby child Tim (Will Forte) wants to bring honour and prestige back to the Willoughby name after his disappointing and neglectful parents, Walter (Martin Short) and Helga (Jane Krakowski) sullied it with their…bad parenting? Younger sister Jane (Alessia Cara) just wants a family that cares about her dreams and twins Barnaby & Barnaby (Seán Cullen) just want to invent in peace without their parents asking them to be quiet all the time. The one thing they agree on is that they want their parents gone by whatever means necessary. All the while they are overseen by a narrating cat (Ricky Gervais) that intends to keep the story on track. The only dilemma, The Willoughbys doesn’t really have one, its really more an outline.
Despite the seasoning of sharp, humourous dialogue, it comes at the expense of moments that make these characters worth caring about in a story screaming for character or a sense of adventure. While this animated story feels at home in a brightly coloured world, when this story steps out of the drably coloured hallways of the Willoughby home it drifts from one lifeless sight gag to the next, knowing where these ‘orphaned’ kids need to be but never really knowing how to make getting there anything more than taxing. Despite a clear desire to differentiate Tim from his parents, director Kris Pearn’s reliance upon the same visual buffoonary for both Tim and his parents makes them seem far too alike. Tim comes across like an unpleasant thoughtless person becasuse his ability to cause destruction around him is constantly linked to his parents own destructive antics. No matter how many ‘humourous’ car accidents Tim might cause, it doesn’t make him seem childish, but just like his disappointing parents.
Although an array of wonderful side characters, from larger than life nanny Linda (the always reliable Maya Rudolph) to Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), a riff on Willy Wonka and Colonel Sanders at the same time, ensure that The Willoughbys plodding 92 minutes doesn’t completely stall but their presence feels like a crutch in a story where the main characters feel paper thin. While there is plenty here to keep kids entertained, from PG violence to rainbow coloured landscapes and funny vomitting visuals, those who know better the whole picture feels somewhat crass, a dreary story of a broken family given light through false colouring and an entertaining supporting cast who feel more vibrant than the titular family at The Willoughbys core.
While it might have the visual design of a Laika production (Missing Link, Kubo and the Two Strings) The Willoughbys is an animation with the visual and narrative styling of a food fight. Full of bright colours constantly wizzing by it proves challenging to really appreciate what is being thrown at you because it feels like an attack on your senses. Dramatically it isn’t much different as it never really settles on any sort of concept outside of discussing the impact of neglectful parents only to find some strange use for them after all. It’s all very confusing being in the Willoughbys orbit and while its all very interesting, much like a food fight, its all very messy and it proves a chore cleaning it up.