“If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle.”
So opens the first volume of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” As practically any young reader will attest, such an admonition is no deterrent at all, but more of an enticement to forge on in a book that amplifies for comic effect the tropes of “old-fashioned” children’s stories — of the sort that Charles Dickens once wrote, about orphans and adversity, poverty and porridge.
Lois Lowry’s “The Willoughbys” was hatched in this same ruthful tradition. The children are neglected, the circumstances are miserable and there is much eating of oatmeal, which, as far as the four Willoughby children are concerned, is only a slight improvement on a diet of leftovers, when a more well-rounded meal would be greatly appreciated. It’s an amusing enough little book, a self-conscious parody of a parody about a clutch of urchins so underappreciated by their parents that they decide to “orphan themselves” — a euphemism for scheming to bump off their folks.
Now Netflix has gone and made an animated adaptation of Lowry’s in-jokey homage, and the result is … colorful. Explosively so, with sugar-sparkle rainbows to rival those “magically delicious” old Lucky Charms commercials, and a clan of characters whose hair’s as Twizzler bright and yarn-like as a classic Raggedy Ann doll’s. This is certainly not the cartoon any child would picture in his or her mind’s eye when reading “The Willoughbys.” Rather, director and co-writer Kris Pearn (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2”) takes a surprising yet all-around more satisfying approach, applying a candy-coated palette and high-fructose energy to what might have been a gloomy Gothic affair in the Tim Burton or Charles Addams tradition.
It all begins as the novel probably ought to have begun, with a tubby blue tabby cat (voiced by “The Office” boss Ricky Gervais) teasing audiences with the kind of reverse-psychology strategy that worked so effectively for that citrusy Snicket fellow: “If you like stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin, and it all ends up happily ever after, this isn’t the film for you, OK?”
While “A Series of Unfortunate Events” may have constituted the better books, the 2004 Jim Carrey movie they inspired was just so-so, whereas “The Willoughbys” vastly improves in its transition to the screen — the screen of course being whichever one you use to watch Netflix. And you can bet your sweet algorithm that anyone who ever sampled Netflix’s more recent “A Series of Unfortunate Events” series (the one with Neil Patrick Harris) will have “The Willoughbys” suggested at the top of his or her queue. It should also be said that the film would make a mighty fine pilot for a spinoff series, should the streamer seek to revisit this family.
As the aforementioned cat informs, there are four Willoughby offspring, descended from a long line of courageous red-haired ancestors but born to parents with absolutely no patience for their “childish needs.” Fourteen-year-old Tim is the eldest (voiced by a high-strung-sounding Will Forte), banished to sleep in the coal bin on a near-nightly basis. Bespectacled budding artist Jane (Alessia Cara) comes next; she’s forever being shushed for wanting to sing in a house where the kids are expected to remain silent (Cara sang “How Far I’ll Go” for the “Moana” soundtrack). And then there are the twins, both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen), junior inventors whom the feline narrator rightly describes as “creepy.”
These four are our main characters, but as far as their parents are concerned, they may as well not exist, and so our sympathies easily sway to their side, even if Jane’s solution — a sort of reverse-“Parent Trap” to get the lovestruck couple out of their lives — is as extreme as they come: Tired of being ignored, the Willoughby children devise a plan to send their parents on a perilous adventure, in which they’re likely to be barbecued, ambushed or eaten by bears. While the adults are away, the kids shall play. Or so they hoped, not realizing that Father (Martin Short) and Mother (Jane Krakowski) have arranged for the cheapest nanny they could find, a big ball of joy — and hair — named Linda (ebulliently voiced by Maya Rudolph).
The nanny means well, but the children see her as a threat to their newfound independence, and so they immediately start concocting strategies for disposing of her as well. So far, “The Willoughbys” is off to a fairly unhappy beginning, although the whole enterprise is so irresistibly cheery-looking in its design that it hardly feels like the sort of family film in which one might find sharks and piranhas, trapdoors and catapults, as well as a series of near-death experiences by hypothermia, starvation and defenestration. Then again, thanks to Henry Selick (“Coraline”) and the “Despicable Me” franchise, there’s ample precedent for macabre tales for tots, packaged such that they don’t actually seem all that sinister.
Jane gets her idea for the Willoughbys to eliminate their parents from an infant who arrives on their stoop in a perforated box; this abandoned baby, whom they name Ruth, spawns a subplot of her own, involving a conveyor-belt-driven candy factory overseen by a faux-military recluse named Commander Melanoff (Terry Crews), whose gruff exterior masks his sweeter, true nature. If you’re sensing references to Roald Dahl et al. (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Mary Poppins” and so on), you’re not mistaken: The movie isn’t quite so intricately indebted to classic children’s tales as its kid-lit source, but it definitely relies on the well-established tradition of tween-targeted literature to spin its own narrative so efficiently.
And while “The Willoughbys” might not be very original, its novelty comes through in the delivery and execution, owing to a witty screenplay (by Pearn and Mark Stanleigh) that combines nimble wordplay with highly compressed, well-paced plotting. The spindly family shares a tendency to move with almost manic speed, the way hand-drawn cartoon humans might. In traditional animation, artists use what are called key frames for efficiency — strong poses that characters strike and hold — and Pearn and his team bend the digital tools to imitate that aesthetic, giving “The Willoughbys” its “old-fashioned” look.
The technology allows the filmmakers (working for Canada-based Bron Animation) to pay homage to stop-motion animation as well, rendering the environments and textures in a manner that suggests the work of studios like Laika (“The Missing Link”), particularly in the coarse, yarn-like hair; french-fry-shaped stalks of grass; and rainbows that appear to be drawn in chalk. Even the virtual camera angles, lighting and shooting style are designed to suggest that these characters might be miniatures, photographed frame by frame on some elaborate doll-house set, when in fact, they’re just ones and zeroes, cleverly rendered to look almost as appealing as such labor-intensive projects.
It’s a deliciously unexpected approach, and not at all the one we might anticipate for such a superficially dark story. Instead, “The Willoughbys” keeps things upbeat, building to a big finale where the children attempt to rescue their parents from “an Alp” where they’ve sent them to freeze. Of what happens there, the cat narrator claims he “didn’t see that coming,” although bright young viewers will likely be less stunned.
Adults, meanwhile, have no cause to worry. The movie may feature two parents who scarcely deserve saving, but it’s responsible about the way it presents this idea (your kiddos won’t be putting snakes in your bed or Drano in your coffee after seeing it). At a moment when most locked-in American families are pretty near the limit of how much they can stand of one another, “The Willoughbys” wraps things up beautifully with a song, in which Jane embraces her oddball clan with a wonderful sentiment: “I choose you.”