Milan Kundera once wrote that “a single metaphor can give birth to love.” But, for all his genius, what the great Czech novelist failed to foresee is that a single metaphor can also give birth to a mildly tolerable kids movie in which Alec Baldwin voices a business-minded newborn. For you see, Dreamworks Animation’s “The Boss Baby” isn’t — as the unenlightened masses might understandably assume — just a disposable cartoon about a hyper-intelligent infant who becomes the CEO of a major corporation. I mean, it is definitely that, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t only that. No, “The Boss Baby” is also, like, one of those movies that’s about something, ya know?
It’s about how babies (wait for it) are like (here it comes) the (buckle up!) BOSS of the family, forcing everyone else in the house to adjust to their schedule and whims. It’s about how difficult that can be for a kid who’s grown accustomed to life as an only child, and fears that there’s only so much love to go around.
Most of all, it’s about paying Alec Baldwin an enormous sum of money to say “Cookies are for closers.”
Very loosely based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book of the same name, “The Boss Baby” is the inventively told story of a seven-year-old named Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), whose idyllic childhood is made all the better by his overactive imagination. Tim is every well-off white kid who grew up to be a storyteller: He’s got more creativity than he knows what to do with, and so he turns everything about his rather ordinary life into a grand adventure.
Waking up becomes a conversation with a wizard (his talking alarm clock is a Gandalf knockoff named Wizzy), dinner becomes an exotic hunt through the Congo, and the simple act of going downstairs becomes an undersea voyage on a nuclear submarine. At night, Tim’s loving parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) calm him down with a singalong to the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” His mom is obviously pregnant, but the kid doesn’t seem to notice or care. “Do you want a little brother?” his dad asks. “No, thanks,” he replies. Tim is totally cool with how things are — he thinks that three is the perfect number, that a triangle is the strongest shape in nature.
The film pinballs around the inner workings of Tim’s mind with the relentless mania of a sugar rush, adhering to what viewers have come to expect from the studio behind “Turbo” and “The Croods” (what Dreamworks lacks in artistry they compensate for with raw energy). Fortunately, “Madagascar” director Tom McGrath has a bottomless well of visually clever ways to bounce between fantasy and reality. By the time Boss Baby strolls into the house wearing a suit and tie and carrying a tiny briefcase, it’s easy enough to parse between what’s happening in Tim’s house and what’s happening in Tim’s head.
What’s happening in Tim’s house is simple enough to explain: He’s terrified that he’s being replaced. What’s happening in Tim’s head, well… it’s what happens when a child’s logic meets a screenwriter’s mandate. Stretching the premise for a great Pixar short into the stuff of an exhausting 97-minute matinee, “The Boss Baby” imagines a dismally fanciful mythology for its diaper-filling namesake, padding out his hostile takeover of Tim’s family with some colorful nonsense about a corporation run by toddlers (complete with imagery borrowed from “The Apartment”) and a magical formula that keeps people from growing older.
It’s an approach that milks the film’s basic idea for all its worth, while at the same time forcing the story away from the simple gags that give it life. Watching Tim chase after his brother while pretending that he’s in an action scene from a ’70s TV show? Amusing! Watching Tim dress his brother like a dog so that they can break into a dog factory (don’t ask) and stop a dastardly plan to invent a puppy so adorable that people stop having babies? Not amusing. Also, that’s genocide.
The bad guy in “The Boss Baby” wants to exterminate the entire human race (but like, in a cute way). The film is never funny, and its attempts to wink at the adults in the room are so lame that you wish they’d been left on the cutting room floor, but the deeper the film delves into Tim’s imagination the less imaginative it becomes.
And imagination is ultimately what “The Boss Baby” knows best. The movie, which is narrated by Tim as an adult (Tobey Maguire), never bothers to underline this point or work out the math, but its story is set at some indeterminate point in the past. The fact that Tim’s go-to references include “The 6 Million Dollar Man” and Indiana Jones feels more like a bit of thoughtless storytelling than it does a pointed frame of reference, but — over time — the absence of cell phones and computers grows increasingly conspicuous.
It’s a subtle case, but it’s one that McGrath’s film argues too well for its own good: Childhood isn’t as special as it used to be, as it was when kids were forced to make sense of the world on their own terms, as it was when the animated movies Hollywood made for them were lushly hand-drawn, rather than plasticly soulless. “The Boss Baby” isn’t as ugly as “Sing,” but it’s not far off. Tim’s story might insist that love is infinite, but the movie around him makes it clear that even the best things in life are taken up to the attic as soon as something shinier comes along.
“The Boss Baby” opens in theaters on Friday, March 31.