It’s a movie about a baby. Who wears a suit. Like a boss does. I’m not sure what else to tell you.
Based on the children’s picture-book by Marla Frazee and directed by Madagascar regular Tom McGrath, Dreamworks’ The Boss Baby takes a universal truth about the demanding reality of newborns, and spins it into a whimsical theory about the origins of toddlers and the conflicting demands put on a family’s resources. Voiced by Miles Bakshi (and Tobey Maguire in the adult-looking-back voiceovers), Tim is a 7 year-old enjoying life as the sole recipient of his parents’ time and attention, mom and dad voiced by Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel. His little kingdom is upended with the sudden arrival of his baby brother, who shows up on the family’s doorstep wearing black shades, a tie and a tiny power watch. No-one thinks this is odd, and no-one questions how he got from the mother’s belly to their front door. It’s a bit strange, this movie.
Metaphorically, the baby is the new boss of the household, a screaming, demanding mini-emperor whose wailing frustrations send the sleep-deprived adults scrambling for whatever remedy is at hand. But in this movie he’s literally a boss too, or at least a member of baby middle management. In the world of the film, babies come from some kind of production line in the sky, where they are either sent down to the care of families or recruited for the offices of Baby Corp, the conglomerate in charge of all things goo-goo and ga-ga. Those who have been headhunted stay toddler-sized but adult-minded thanks to some secret formula; those who drop to earth revert to mindless infants. Tim’s new brother (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is the former. He’s on an espionage mission to get information on a new uber-cute puppy being developed by rivals at Puppy Co, where Tim’s parents work, one guaranteed to suck up all the love in the world, leaving little left over for the mini-humans.
The main problem with The Boss Baby is that children won’t get the joke. When the baby talks about cutbacks, and flings dollars around, and eulogizes the value of memos, the film is assuming an awareness of corporate idiom that young audiences, still numb to the oncoming world of office bureaucracy, simply don’t possess. Parents will get it, sure, but even then it’s pretty much a one-joke thing, an exercise in basic incongruity.
Generally, the film tries to keep attention with manic, knockabout sequences in which Tim and the baby face off in a household war of attrition, but there’s not much visual energy to them. There are a number of nice sequences that play with form, like when the villain (Steve Buscemi) narrates the backstory of his resentment using card-thin, kids’ book pop-up visuals, but most of the story plays out in basic animation. Baldwin doesn’t have much to work with, but still manages to slip in the spirit of Jack Donaghy to the odd line delivery, getting a laugh or two.
As Tim and his brother inevitably put their differences aside and work together, the film zeros in on a message of abundance – there’s always enough love to go around – a sweet but shoe-worn sentiment. Outside of building its alternate infant realities, The Boss Baby doesn’t have much interest in the emotional worlds of children and their families, especially compared with something like Inside Out. What ideas it has needed a grown-up’s touch. Conor Smyth
The Boss Baby is released in the UK on 7th April.