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A dark, twisted, heartfelt family pic in 'The Willoughbys'


LOS ANGELES — Maya Rudolph loves stories about unconventional families. It’s why her daughter brought Lois Lowry’s “The Willoughbys” to her attention well before she knew that there was a planned film adaptation. The novel, from 2010, is a gently macabre Lemony Snicket-meets-Roald Dahl cocktail of terrible parents and quirky children who’d prefer to be rid of one another.

“I knew right away once she told me about this strange family,” Rudolph said. “That always gets me. I like a strange family story.”

So, Rudolph was especially excited to sign on to the animated film ( on Netflix Wednesday ) in which she plays the cheery nanny to the four grossly neglected Willoughby children — the eldest of which, Tim, is voiced by her longtime friend and comedy peer Will Forte.

“Anytime that Maya is involved in something and I get a chance to be in it makes it a very easy answer,” Forte said.

The cast is brimming with comedic talent. Ricky Gervais plays the narrator cat with his own wry flair; Terry Crews brings a gleeful energy as a Willy Wonka-like candy titan named Commander Melanoff; and Jane Krakowski and Martin Short go delightfully over-the-top as parents who could not be more annoyed about that fact.

Some, like Crews, Forte and Krakowski, had worked with director and co-writer Kris Pearn (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”) before, but Krakowski had the added sell of getting to work with Short.

“I think he’s a comic genius so it was an absolute pleasure to try to riff off of him in the vaudevillian way that the parents exist,” Krakowski said.

And amidst all the veterans is a newcomer to film: Singer-songwriter Alessia Cara, who voices the more adventurous middle Willoughby child Jane.

“I’m very camera shy,” said Cara, who also sings the original song “I Choose” in the film. “It was a perfect medium because I got to act and showcase that side but at the same time not be on camera.”

If the Lemony Snicket and Dahl comparisons are any indication, “The Willoughbys” has a dark sense of humour. At one point, the starving and outcast children decide that the only way they’re going to be saved is to “orphan” themselves. So, yes, they do hatch a plot to make sure their parents don’t come back from vacation.

But take it from the parents in the cast: Younger viewers aren’t going to get any devious ideas.

“The comedy is a bit twisted and yet funny,” Rudolph said. “There is actual heart combined with the most extreme characters.”

Krakowski showed it to her 9-year-old son recently, as they’re navigating sheltering in place and homeschooling like many other families across the country.

“It was just wonderful to have something fun and entertaining to watch and something new to watch at this time,” she said. “(And he) only came away with the most positive response. He took away that it was all about rainbows and a fun adventure and a talking cat.”

Crews, who said the whole film has “Ricky's sensibility,” had a similar experience watching it with his granddaughter in this time of extreme highs and lows.

“I thought, this is the kind of movie we need right now,” he said. “Kids get a lot more than you give them credit for. They understand a lot more. They can handle a lot more than you think they can.”

And it’s a visual feast as well with animation that’s bursting with vibrant imagination in every frame.

“I would be fulfilled just watching it with the sound off,” said Forte. “The best way to describe it is that I went to Red Rocks once and just walking into Red Rocks, you look around and you're like I don't even need to see a concert, this is so beautiful. And then I got to watch Radiohead ... This is the same way."


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Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press