The Boss Baby

2017 | rated PG | Animation | directed by Tom McGrath | 1hr 37mins |

Studio Pitch: A baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase and talks in management-speak

{Spoiler – Contains the plot details of The Boss Baby from start to finish}

Animation takes a lot of people and a long time to create. Even though it’s often aimed at a family audience, the sheer number of cooks in the kitchen usually keeps it managed, making it easier to slip something weird through a live action movie that it is an animated movie. The Boss Baby is one of the absolute most bizarre big studio animated movies I’ve seen in quite a while. Now, obviously, I don’t expect a Dreamworks cartoon to detail where babies come from, but I’d expect they have imagined up a reality where they come from somewhere or something. Like Storks or the super-creepy The Tooth Fairy before it, Boss Baby has a novel premise and creates a reality to prop it up that has such a strange and bizarre subtext that the entire movie became secondary to this distraction. The movie has it’s moments of genuine wit, but more often than not it’s too clever by half. This is one worth giving a blow by blow of.

Based on a picture book by Marlee Frazee that succeeds with a simple premise: that the demands of a newborn baby are just like the demands of a middle-management boss. An ode to parenthood and a slam at the corporate culture in one clever shot. The scriptwriters banging away on a thousand typewriters in the basement 100 feet below the Dreamworks building have an uphill battle stretching this into a feature film. First they switch the point of view from exhausted parents to a formerly only child who now feels replaced by the new arrival. Family film cliché checked. Then they burn through the book’s jokes with young Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi) observing things he’s too young to probably observe about middle-management life. Then, the movie having exhausted it’s “what if a baby… wore a suit… and nobody noticed” premise decides that simple silliness isn’t enough and starts filling world-building explanations for how the nameless boss baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin to reprise his 30 Rock take on management) came to the house of the Templeton’s (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel, Kimmel getting through the script without a single tear). In the same way that Killer Klowns from Outer Space takes everything about the circus and gives it a weird malevolent twist, The Boss Baby sets about to redefine babies, formula, suckers, play dates and puppies with a high-tech corporate origin story.

In this chicken and egg reality, babies are assembled by machines in the sky and sent out on conveyor belts and down slides to families. Like Storks, the production of babies are products of a company – BabyCo – that exists to push a product on a population of people regardless of if they want them or not. The babies that go to families grow up, but the babies that stay in BabyCo become cubicle-dwelling drones that continually drink formula to keep them infants… because babies … make the best babies. Enter the Boss Baby as one of the BabyCo spies (which confuses the movie’s original joke, why does he wear a suit and tie if he’s a spy?) who comes down to Earth to investigate the central problem. The Dreamworks writing staff has been on Facebook and recognizes our social media obsession with puppies. The Baby Boss is built around a piece-of-the-pie idea that there is only a finite amount of love in the world and that love is now being siphoned to puppies instead of babies. Baby Boss and his reluctant new “brother” Tim take off to find the latest puppy creation from PuppyCo and restore the BabyCo rightful piece of the Love balance pie. Got all that?

There is a lot of witty, edgy stuff in here. For the movie to really spell out a child’s fear of being loved less when a new baby comes along; for it to cleverly compare that replacement with the replacement that happens in the workplace when more seasoned employees are replaced with young hot shots; for it to make villains out of our nation’s new most sacred cow – puppies – and leave a tiny slice of the pie for “spouses” – I love all of these jokes. At least in theory. But The Baby Boss isn’t a movie about a baby spy in a suit and tie who travels the world undermining the status quo while nobody notices – in Tiny Toons Chicken-boo style. No, it backs it’s one-liners into a soft, cushy more marketable family film that tries to say something about love and family, a tone that clashes with it’s edge in weird ways. The goal our heroes are working toward here involves Boss Baby abandoning the parents who are loving and caring for him and then wiping their memory of ever having a baby. All of it comes off weirder and crueler than cute and funny. Even the office jokes like “cookies are for closers” and Baby giving Tim empty motivation-poster speeches don’t land.

The thing is, because this is a movie, (I’m not even talking about it as a family film, just a movie), we know there is no way Baby Boss will leave his parents, Tim will get less love from his parents or they will do anything to harm puppies,  so we just sit back and wait for the movie to reverse itself and undo everything. It also follows a formula that every hack cartoon has fallen back on since Toy Story proved it could work by insisting that the story play out as a chase movie. The action scenes here are exhaustingly uninspired. A chase around the backyard on some toys, a chase through town on a bicycle, a chase around the house in a stroller, etc. Maybe the tiniest kids will be amused by it.

DreamWorks wanted to have their baby-in-a-suit movie and their cozy family film too. It can’t be silly and wacky and weird just for the sake of it, it has to mean something and that’s really where the tonal clash goes wrong. There is a version of this movie that still isn’t funny or exciting, but would still be admirably bonkers if it stuck with it’s more ridiculous ideas. Instead the movie takes it back. They’ve created a self-conscious wrap-around that explains their explanations: that all of this is just Tim’s active imagination and that he’s telling this story from a point in the future. So either it’s an oddity and makes no sense or none of it means anything. And that’s The Boss Baby. Why not?

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