If that sounds maybe too bleak, don’t worry: many children’s stories have followed precocious youngsters escaping mean caretakers or unhappy homes. James uses a Giant Peach to float away from his cruel aunts. Destiny intervenes on behalf of Harry Potter when Hagrid whisks him off to Hogwarts and away from his abusive relatives, the Dursleys. Little Orphan Annie moves from a grubby orphanage to the palatial home of her newly adopted father, Daddy Warbucks. Even Charles Dickens’ most famous orphan, Oliver Twist, follows the scrappy boy through his many ordeals and an eventual happy ending in Victorian London.
Fortunately, with its candy-coated shell and visual style, “The Willoughbys” never gets too serious or scary. Under the direction of Kris Pearn and co-directors Cory Evans and Rob Lodermeier and the rainbow-tinged cinematography of Sebastian Brodin, many of the objects and characters glow with the shiny newness of a toy just out-of-the-box. The movie practically sparkles in scenes at Melanoff’s candy factor, where the rainbow motif is woven throughout the space and even onto Melanoff’s commander jacket, which is topped off with candy buttons and cupcakes on his shoulders.
The character designs by Craig Kellman, who most recently reimagined the characters of “The Addams Family” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” give the Willoughbys a shocking reddish-pink hair that looks like it was made out of yarn, visually tying the various members of the family together, and frightfully skinny frames that, with the exception of “mushroom-shaped” twins, almost no one else outside their home shares. If you’ve watched a lot of computer animation, you’ll notice that hair, fur and other fuzzy textures are notoriously difficult to get right. “The Willoughbys” uses those details as opportunities for visual jokes. Clouds look like fluffy candy floss that float by a candy-powered vehicle and the children’s yarn-like hair can get messy and unkempt. Although there are aspects of Linda’s design, story and maternal traits that gave me pause, Rudolph’s performance is so fun that her presence feels like a necessary balance for the kids against their uncaring parents.