The Willoughbys, based on the book by Lois Lowry, is a truly wild adventure, and one that, like much of Lowry’s work, offers a special perspective on children’s stories. The Willoughbys are a family that are bizarre and unique, almost to an Addams Family degree, but they are also a kind of hyperbolic extension of “normal” families, in some respects, and that offers a degree of connection that adds to the fun.
The Willoughby children, Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and twins who are both named Barnaby (Sean Cullen), devise a plan to rid themselves of their horrible parents by sending them on a vacation to all of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The move comes after we see the children having to deal with parents who don’t feed them and lock them in the coal bin, but the final straw comes when the children find a baby abandoned on the Willoughby property and their parents tell them they can’t live in the house unless they get rid of the baby.
The kids drop off the baby at a candy factory, run by Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), but they can’t stand the idea that they did it, and hatch their scheme to get rid of their parents. The parents are all too eager to abandon their children and hire a nanny (Maya Rudolph), on the cheap, as they ready to depart.
Unfortunately, the Willoughby parents have infinite luck on their side, but not infinite money, and they decide to sell their house while they’re away so their blissful, child-free vacation can continue. This causes the children to try to scare away prospective buyers, and ultimately decide they are going to need their parents back, if only to keep away child services.
The story is bonkers, wonderful fun that’s sure to win over younger audiences, and it’s filled with as much surreal wonder as clever, kooky dialog. For adults, there’s a disjointed feel to the construction that gives the impression that several attempts at the screenplay were cut together without the effort needed to fit things together. Of course, this could be how the original work plays out, but at several points we suddenly find ourselves in circumstances that weren’t developed, and are offered up as though we are supposed to know how we got there.
Still, it’s a film that is oddly like a trip to the circus, with all that fun, and brilliant characters, and if the story doesn’t gel as well as it could, you aren’t likely to complain.
Things work best when the “everykid” within the Willoughbys shines through their efforts to cause their parents’ death – the uncertainty, the big, crazy world that makes little sense to them, the challenge of surviving rules and the uncontrollable. It’s filled with laughs and a lot of heart, but isn’t likely to become a lifelong favorite.