Babies are a really big part of movies nowadays: it would be difficult to keep count of the pictures that end with a birth sequence, usually one that resolves everything that’s come before—even the most ferocious disputes—in a nice, tidy package. But a curious subset has to do with animated kids’ flicks that use infants as their major plot point. “Storks” went back to the old fable about birds delivering babies and posited a baby factory they once utilized to produce them. Now “The Boss Baby” offers a similar idea, in which babies are in effect manufactured by a heavenly outfit called Baby Corp before being sent—via an assembly line, no less—to their families.
But there’s a wrinkle. Babies deemed unsuited to the world of human infants are assigned to office work at Baby Corp, and one of them (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is assigned to go undercover with the Templeton family on a special mission—to get information about the plan of Puppy Co, where Ted and Janice Templeton (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) work, to introduce a new canine breed called Forever Puppy. Adorable pooches, you see, are threatening Baby Corp’s core business, and the adorability deficit for babies versus puppies can’t be allowed to worsen.
There’s an obstacle to Baby Corp’s scheme, however: the Templeton’s son Tim (Miles Christopher Bakshi). He’s a seven-year old who loves having his parents’ full attention; they positively dote on him, and the thought of having a baby brother is appalling to him. He’s immediately suspicious of the newcomer, and uses his sleuthing skills to discover that the baby is not what he seems—a cooing infant—but a hard-talking, hard driving, ambitious corporate executive (Baldwin’s stentorian delivery fits right in with such a characterization) with a secret agenda as well as a gang of local baby helpers that join him for so-called playdates that are really strategy sessions. After a mini-war between the two, they settle on an alliance. Since if the baby fails, he will be cut off from a formula that keeps him a corporate exec and make him revert to infancy, forcing him to remain with the Templetons for good), Tim agrees to aid him in stopping Puppy Co’s plan so that his kid brother will go back to his heavenly office and he’ll he an only child again.
Their joint effort will disclose why Puppy Co’s head, Francis Francis (Steve Buscemi), is so intent on introducing Forever Puppy, and why he and his henchman Eugene (Conrad Vernon) will go to such lengths to stop Tim and Baby from wrecking his unveiling ceremony in Las Vegas. Of course, in the process of fighting a common foe Tim and the baby bond, with entirely predictable results.
All this sounds weird—weirder even than “Storks”—and not a little creepy, given the sight of big-headed Boss Baby waddling around in his suit and tie. Michael McCullers’ script, based on a children’s book by Maria Frazee, does, however, provide an out for those for those who might find it too strange to stomach. Tim, you see, is (as his older self, narrating in the voice of Tobey Maguire, explains) an extremely imaginative kid, adept at inventing fantastic tales in which he rescues his parents from nefarious villains (or vice versa). So one can simply understand the entire scenario of “Boss Baby” as the kid’s wild fantasy about how he heroically tries to save his family from a fate worse than death—a new, unwanted member of the clan. If taken in that light, the movie is intended to be more than just an oddly unsettling tale about a newborn that’s not a newborn at all, but a quasi-psychological narrative about overcoming sibling rivalry, though through fantastic means.
That’s a pretty profound theme for an animated kidflick to bear, though, and while “Inside Out” came very close to hitting the sweet spot in that regard, “The Boss Baby” falls short. It’s certainly energetic and colorful enough to hold kids’ attention, and Baldwin’s grumpy line readings will amuse grownups—for a while, at least. But it’s so intent on simply appealing to kids’ most obvious inclinations (naughty potty humor, anyone?) that it simply opts for the lowest-hanging fruit rather than reach for the deeper issues it incidentally raises–though there is a goofy bit about Tim’s Gandalf-style alarm clock, voiced by James McGrath, that should raise a smile.
So you can perhaps intuit a smarter movie in “The Boss Baby” than it appears to be on its polished, frantic surface, but it may not be worth the effort.