Cute until it's grating, “The Boss Baby” benefits from a game Alec Baldwin and a nifty retro look, but it's saddled with a weak plot that hits its marks without leaving an impression.
Is it worth $10? No
The trailers for “The Boss Baby” promise plenty of hip, grown-up movie references and Trump-era winking at the audience, but don't fall for the “here comes the airplane” trick. The latest delivery from DreamWorks Animation is a toothless affair, one that arguably plays as a defense of the corporate culture and nuclear family unit it purports to satirize.
That doesn't mean the family comedy, adapted by director Tom McGrath (“Madagascar,” “Megamind”) from Marla Frazee's 2010 picture book, is without its aesthetic pleasures, beginning with the characters' big-eyed retro look and a penchant for physical humor that recall Tex Avery in his heyday and UPA cartoons of the 1950s and ‘60s.
The film, told from the point of view of young, impressionable Tim Templeton (the voice of Miles Christopher Bakshi), begins with an idealized portrait of family bliss. Tim's mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel) may form part of a marketing team for a fanciful retail giant/puppy mill conglomerate by day, but after clocking out they devote the rest of their time to their son. The spunky 7-year-old takes the folks on make-believe adventures that play better in our heads than the precious, overdirected scenarios that unfold onscreen. (Tobey Maguire provides half-hearted voiceover narration as the adult Tim.)
Tim's overactive imagination, as well as viewers' dwindling patience, are about to be taken for a ride with the arrival of the titular character, a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying tot with an eye for the bottom line and the voice of Alec Baldwin, by far this business-minded enterprise's strongest asset.
The film's title sequence, which takes viewers inside the factory where, as we all know, all babies come from, is a blithe, neatly conceived showcase. The creation of life is here reimagined as a Busby Berkeley-by-way-of-Charlie-Chaplin routine, and “The Boss Baby” could have used more of that Golden Age appeal. Normal babies are shipped away to stable suburban homes. (There are no other kind in McGrath's melding of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.) But Baldwin is singled out as special, so the big-headed infant is sent to the Templetons for purposes that are eventually spelled out (and have been spoiled in the promos).
Predictably enough, BB worms his away into Mummy and Daddy's affections, leaving Tim alone with his aggressively precious fantasies, as well as, in one of several UPA references, a “Mr. Magoo” comic book in his bedroom. There's only one solution to this border wall wedged between Tim and his parents: take out the trash. Thus begins a game of one-upmanship between Tim, who catches BB chatting on the phone with his superiors and aims to out him, and Baldwin's cynical pint-size exec, who realizes he needs his older brother in order to carry out his mission.
The sibling-rivalry narrative could have made for unfussy, easily digestible matinee fare, but every time Tim “uses his imagination,” McGrath feels compelled to indulge in heavy-handed depictions of play-acting. It all feels calculated and self-aware, to the point that the sight gags are just grating.
It's a real shame, since the care McGrath shows for his characters' body movements is on full display. It's a hoot, minor as it may be, to see BB, an adult trapped in an infant's body, try to carry all that baby fat around. The director is using the tools of computer animation to evoke the pliable nature of traditional cel animation, an agreeable change of pace from the current push for more photorealism. There's also a healthy amount of disarming butt jokes to go with the copious amount of naked baby derrieres, the most this critic has seen in a studio family-oriented release.
But “The Boss Baby's” virtues remain subservient to a threadbare, ill-conceived plot that just makes a lot of the movie feel mundane and stale. Tim and BB's frenemy bond has been DreamWorked into a pat, innocuous mold McGrath is all too willing to fill. On top of its impulse to refrain from rocking the boat is a running joke in which BB makes fun of Tim because his middle name is Leslie. Mocking a gender-neutral name just because it tends to be used as a girl's name is the kind of ridicule that, one would think, we had moved beyond, and I'm a little disappointed that a) it figures prominently in major 2017 studio release, and b) it's largely being ignored in the press coverage for this film. Similarly, McGrath seems to find no issue with relegating black triplets to act as BB's yes men.
Anti-Trump viewers hoping for well-timed cannon fodder aimed at the current commander in chief will have to look elsewhere. If anything, “The Boss Baby” plays like a cutesy homage to Wall Street's Masters of the Universe the former “Apprentice” host would favor. This is indoctrinating fare for bourgie families who, like Baldwin's ladder-climber in diapers, dream of a corner office with its own private potty. It's the audience who ends up feeling treated like babies.
Photos: DreamWorks Animation