The high-concept premise of “The Boss Baby,” a borderline-cute, suffocatingly creepy kiddie fantasy from DreamWorks Animation, continually violates what were once inviolable laws of the universe. Babies, as everyone knows, tend to eat, cry, giggle, nap and soil themselves. They do not wear black business suits, carry briefcases, chug espressos and plot hostile corporate strategies.
But the Boss Baby, voiced with sneaky, fast-talking elan by Alec Baldwin, does all these things and more. To his besotted parents, a pair of pet-company executives (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel), he is an eating, crying, giggling, napping, self-soiling bundle of joy, miraculously delivered to their doorstep in accordance with family-friendly MPAA guidelines. But his 7-year-old brother, Tim (Miles Bakshi), quickly senses that the kid is not all right — and not merely because of the jealousy any firstborn can feel upon becoming a sibling.
The notion of a newborn being the domestic equivalent of an attention-hogging corporate taskmaster — a micromanager who must also, in turn, be micromanaged — was clever enough to sustain Marla Frazee’s 36-page picture book. And in the early going, at least, director Tom McGrath (a veteran of such DreamWorks properties as “Megamind” and the “Madagascar” series) has enough fun with the movie’s metaphor, which might even be a figment of young Tim’s surreal and hyperactive imagination, illustrated in a few zippy, brightly colored daydream sequences throughout.
Mistaking cliché for comic insight, [the script lacks] the kind of conceptual rigor that a Pixar intern could probably muster.
But Michael McCullers’ script soon runs into its own version of growing pains. Not unlike the similarly misbegotten book-to-screen likes of “Mars Needs Moms” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” (hardly), the movie embellishes the details and betrays the spirit of its charming source material, bogging down in extraneous narrative complications in a desperate bid to justify its feature length.
The Boss Baby turns out to be not really a baby at all. He is one of the pint-sized but parent-less middle managers at the offices of Baby Corp., the movie’s answer to the age-old question “Where do babies come from?” (Baby Corp. is not to be confused with Cornerstore.com, the sex-free, avian-staffed procreation service in last year’s equally fanciful but considerably more enjoyable bun-in-the-oven cartoon, “Storks.”)
Now he has descended to Earth and embedded himself with an ordinary suburban family. His mission, on which he and Tim will inevitably join forces, is to investigate and derail a troubling recent boom in the competing puppy industry, which is causing the similarly love-dependent infant market to plummet. That’s a funny enough way to account for the global birth-rate decline, I guess, though I imagine a few million cat lovers would beg to differ. And the joke quickly expires as it becomes clear the filmmakers aren’t satirizing a corporation’s contempt for its customers so much as embodying it.
The big problem with “The Boss Baby” — besides its ritual abuse of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” — is not that the story is nonsense, but that its particular brand of nonsense is so strenuous and half-baked. Mistaking cliché for comic insight, and lacking the kind of conceptual rigor that a Pixar intern could probably muster, the script falls back repeatedly on the kinds of assumptions about human behavior that are meant to be cute and relatable to grown-ups and kids alike, but which instead offer an unflattering glimpse into the movie’s lazy, cynical soul.
To wit: Everybody loves puppies. Chicks dig babies. (I’m quoting, not paraphrasing.) Vegas is full of Elvis impersonators. Men in dresses are hilarious. Kids acting like adults are hilarious. (Didn’t the “Baby Geniuses” movies disprove this decades ago?)
That said, the movie’s one major asset is its star, Baldwin, who suavely splits the difference between his performances as Jack Donaghy of “30 Rock” and President Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” The movie seems to be openly encouraging the latter association, given the character’s blond hair, his pride in his own business acumen and his very, very small hands.
But not even a mealymouthed attempt at political satire is ultimately enough to rescue “The Boss Baby” from its pervasive sourness and paucity of imagination. Inevitably joining forces, Tim and his brother are forced to navigate a succession of action-thriller scenarios, referencing everything from Indiana Jones to James Bond, and building to a truly skin-crawling scene involving a “Men in Black”-style memory-erasure device. After the screening, I wanted to buy one.
‘The Boss Baby’
MPAA rating: PG, for some mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release