Children’s cinema has it in it to be a perplexingly surreal place. You can keep your Salvador Dali’s and your David Lynch’s, they have nothing on the elaborate and deeply weird concepts which establish the world of The Boss Baby.
Based on Marla Frazee’s likewise titled picture book, the biologically unsound idea here is that human babies descend on the world from a Heaven-via-hegemonopia business in the sky called Baby Corp. From their (…birth? …construction?) initial formation, the infants are divided between those destined to join families and those who will enter employment within the company itself. With adult minds in minute bodies, the job of those designated to the latter category is to preserve human devotion to babies around the world. However, when the balance of love begins to shift unfavourably from the newborns towards puppies, soon to be manufactured to remain so forever, that the Boss Baby (voiced by 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin) is sent to set the record straight. He does this by joining the family of Tim Templeton (Miles Christoper Bakshi, with Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel lending their talents to the roles of his parents), a child absorbed in his own imagination and the idyll of being an only child.
You’re not meant to take any of that as read of course; instead it’s all a, somewhat forced, introduction to set up the metaphor for the way the arrival of a new sibling disturbs the life pattern of an elder, pre-established child. It is Tim’s imaginary perspective of the scenario, narrated by his older self (Tobey Maguire), that sees his little brother’s ‘takeover’ as one horrifically cold, businesslike and domineering. The baby becomes the boss. What follows is a re-spun telling of a tale told – and better so – in many a family fare before it (Toy Story, for instance). Tim must come to terms with these new life arrangements in the end, but before then agrees to help the Boss Baby, who also has much to learn, in his mission, on the proviso that, once the objective has been achieved, status quo will be returned: ‘My life was perfect before you showed up’ he snaps before dropping the inevitable ‘I wish you’d never been born!’
The Boss Baby opens well enough. Its visuals are all rather lovely, strikingly reminiscent of a Looney Tunes aesthetic, and a series of consistently funny gags throughout the opening (replete with the obligatory nod to farting) promise a film that will at least make for an amusing hour and a half. It is ironic then that the instigation of the film’s principal gag – Baldwin’s deadpan delivery of his distantly un-infantile voice – marks a turning point when the whole thing slips from sweet to tiresome, before concluding at mildly irritating. Frazee’s book is a much simpler affair so it’s a wonder quite why Michael McCullers’ script, directed by Madagascar and Megamind’s Tom McGrath, feels the need to mangle it so. That the set-up is just as distractingly convoluted as it is, ultimately means that the film itself remains much harder to invest in. It’s not necessarily a problem that adults accompanying their own ‘boss children’ will be painfully aware of where it’s all going – we’re not the target audience – but it is hard not to feel like more derivative strands here are so much more successfully executed elsewhere. From recent years, take both Inside Out and The Lego Movie as examples of far funnier and more profound endeavours.
Better executed and more innocently too. Under the surface of The Boss Baby is a satirical strand that will likely sail over younger minds (spot the tiny hands of an infantile leader throwing his toys out of the pram), but there’s an irksome number of on-the-nose jokes teetering too close to adult territory. An early sight gag in which the Boss Baby lies the wrong way round on the Baby Corp. conveyor belt, realising just in time where the machine is about to install a dummy, works with childish glee, but a play on a nasty swear word later on in the script feels arguably more alarming.
With Easter on the horizon, The Boss Baby should channel just enough of its energies into entertaining younger audiences to make it worth a family outing. That said, whilst the film has pleasingly distinctive animation, it’s nowhere near funny enough to impart a memorable experience and bypasses genuine emotion in favour of a commercially constructed product of executive business targeting. The rattle doesn’t fall far from the pram.