Lois Lowry’s book of terrible parents and suffering kids gets a comedic animated adaptation.
The story is told to the audience by a fourth-wall breaking Cat (Ricky Gervais), starting generations ago with the original Willoughbys, a family renowned for its adventurous, inventive, and devoted members. Unfortunately, the modern Willoughbys (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) are only interested in their own romance, to the point that they ignore their four children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and twins both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen). Not in the sense of just not being involved in their lives, but in the sense of not feeding them and locking them in the basement. One day a baby is left on the doorstep of the Willoughbys and, when the Willoughby children try to find a home for this new orphan, they end up making a plan to get a better life for themselves, ultimately involving a Nanny (Maya Rudolph), a candy factory owner (Terry Crews), and a dirigible, in no particular order.
Do you remember when Tom and Jerry had a cartoon about them committing suicide? How about when Pluto went to hell and was judged by devil cats? Littlefoot’s mom dying in The Land Before Time? I only bring these up to give you an idea of what kind of kids movie this is, because it is very, very dark. The film, while it does play some of the treatment of the children for laughs, also is pretty straightforward that what they’re going through is nothing short of aggravated child abuse.
The movie can really only balance humor and dark subject matter because the world of this film, as well as the characters themselves, are all extremely silly. It doesn’t quite get to the charmingly dark level of Roald Dahl, but it’s around the Lemony Snicket level of surreal and tragic. There are strange buildings, incredibly odd people, and unbelievable occurrences everywhere, and the children just tend to express awe and incredulity, and then just roll with it. Naturally, that allows the audience to roll with it, while still appreciating the absurdity.
The cast is all excellent, as you might expect from the list. Ricky Gervais spends much of the movie “taking the piss” as the Cat, which is a fun narrative style when done right. Since that’s pretty much all Ricky Gervais does usually, he has enough experience to do it right. Will Forte brings a sort of deranged optimism to the group, while Maya Rudolph and Alessia Cara both aid their characters’ attitude of “singing through the pain.” Cullen’s twins are creepy, which is all they’re supposed to be.
The downside to the movie is that it feels like it’s got 9 acts rather than the typical three. It’s like a handful of short stories that are woven together rather than a single narrative. I assume that’s because of the nature of the book they’re adapting to the screen, but having never read it, I can’t tell for sure. Other films have done the same structure, but this one never feels quite as smooth as those.
Overall, though, it’s a decent movie, even if it sometimes feels a little disjointed.
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