The Boss Baby
Weirdly conceived kiddy cartoon bogs down in confusing mythology
The Boss Baby (2017)
Directed by Tom McGrath
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Steve Buscemi
In Hollywood films generally come in one of two categories: the “high concept” (a film so simple and familiar that its entire plot can be boiled down to a single tagline—like Independence Day) and the “low concept” (non plot-driven dramas, generally, that are more focussed on character and can’t effectively be explained in a single sentence—like Ordinary People). And then there are the outliers: films that can’t really be explained no matter how you look at them. These tend to be bizarro foreign films or experimental indies whose goals are far outside the commercial realm. Occasionally, however, we end up with a mainstream Hollywood offering that is so bizarrely conceived that it’s hard to tell what the hell anyone involved was thinking.
The Boss Baby is just such a film. It is, ostensibly, a family-centric CGI cartoon from the folks at DreamWorks Animation. But it’s, hands-down, the most confusing cartoon to hit theaters in ages, raising more questions than the original Cars. (Why do the anthropomorphic cars have doors and seats and rearview mirrors? What happened to all the people? What, in God’s name, happened to all the people?)
The premise for The Boss Baby is beyond odd. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if babies were really corporate executives? ... Nope, that’s not working. Wouldn’t it be funny if your baby was born with the ability to speak and loved capitalism? ... Still not right.
From the trailers, you could easily mistake this film as the story of one, freakishly hyper-intelligent infant. Like Baby Geniuses, but animated. But no. The Boss Baby takes us into some sort of strange cartoon world in which babies, prior to being born on Earth, exist in a sort of corporatized factory setting (Heaven?) that sorts them into either family material or middle-management executives (those being the only two choices). The Boss Baby follows the adventures of one particular suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby who ends up working happily in the endless office cubicles of the mythical “Baby Corp.”
Pay attention, because it gets weirder from here. Worried that humans are pouring all their love into puppies, resulting in a corresponding dip in birth rates, upper management at “Baby Corp.” decides to send Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) to Earth. His mission: to infiltrate “Puppy Co.” and find out what their secret, procreation-
Being an overly imaginative prepubescent, is it possible that Tim is just imagining the new family member as some sort of strange, corporate invader? Is Tim actually jealous Mom and Dad are shifting their love and attention to the newcomer? Could it all be one big metaphor for the idea that newborns require a lot of work and that older siblings might fear that there’s only so much love to go around? Kinda. But not really. This is a movie about a baby who’s a businessman who’s engaged in corporate espionage against puppies. See, Mom and Dad actually work for “Puppy Co.,” and it’s Boss Baby’s job to shut them down. So the film mostly has Tim battling it out with Boss Baby, trying to expose the walking, talking interloper to Mom and Dad, while Boss Baby conspires with his fellow baby spies to destroy Puppy Co. every time Mom and Dad’s backs are turned.
Baldwin has been something of a comic ringer in the last decade or so, knocking it out of the park as daffy CEO Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock” and making major headlines spoofing Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” Here he more or less recycles those capitalism-loving characters (along with just a dash of his evil boss from Glengarry Glen Ross thrown in for good measure). But—and this can’t emphasized enough—he’s a baby. That’s the joke.
DreamWorks Animation has produced some decent films (How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda) and some cruddy ones (Shark Tale, Megamind, The Croods, Turbo). The Boss Baby is easily one of the laziest. The jokes go straight for the lowest common denominator. There are endless butt, fart, butt, toilet, butt, diaper, butt, poop and butt jokes for the kids in the audience. And just so the adult chaperones don’t fall asleep, there is the occasional winking reference to an older film that kids couldn’t possibly recognize (Glengarry Glen Ross, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Apartment). Baldwin does everything he can to sell it, but unless the phrase “Cookies are for closers!” sends you into paroxysms of laughter, there isn’t a lot here to keep you entertained. Kids may be momentarily pacified. Adults will mostly be checking their watches between butt references.
The movie moves like a preschooler hopped up on Pixy Stix and Capri Sun. But with no coherent narrative to nail its feet to the floor, the nonstop energy feels like the pointless flailing of an inflatable dancing man in front of a used car dealership. The CGI animation is passable, but hardly distinctive. The bones of an interesting story are scattered throughout the film: childhood imagination, sibling rivalry. (This is loosely based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book of the same name.) But the end result is muddled and confusing. Originality in animation is a good thing. (See Pixar’s Inside Out and countless others for reference.) But The Boss Baby is one convoluted idea that should never have escaped from the corporate brainstorming session that birthed it.