It’s a routine feeling to want a movie to be smarter. Every so often, though, you may want a movie to be a little dumber — to be true to what it actually is. “The Boss Baby,” the jokey new 3D animated lark from DreamWorks Animation (it’s being distributed by 20th Century Fox), is a visually brisk, occasionally clever low-concept comedy that’s also trying, half-heartedly, to be some sort of Pixarish masterpiece. You may wind up wishing that it had been one or the other.
The title character is an insanely precocious, arrogant, walking-and-talking infant who dresses in a black business suit, carries a briefcase, has big marble eyes that narrow down to devious slits, and snaps out observations and demands in the mellifluous cutthroat voice of Alec Baldwin, who has a peerless gift for making bombs-away statements that don’t raise his pulse by a beat. The character, who is never called anything but Boss Baby, is a kick to look at, with a blockish head that’s nearly as tall as his body, and he gets to bark out a lot of lines like “Where’s HR when you need ’em?” or (upon being told that he hates someone) “Hate is a strong word. It’s the right word, but still…”
“The Boss Baby” was loosely inspired by Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book, and if the movie had simply had been a feature-length “Look Who’s Talking” riff about a tyrannical baby who’s running the household like a corporate titan (a perfect metaphor, of course, for how the parents of a newborn feel — he really is the boss), it might have been a perfect throwaway hoot. Back in 1989 and ’90, the critics were never too kind to the “Look Who’s Talking” films — they were held in contempt — but this critic, for one, found them more funny than not, and there is of course one fantastic talking baby in popular culture: the snobbish, irascible, hilariously merciless Stewie on “Family Guy” — the purest expression of Seth MacFarlane’s id on that show. As a character, Boss Baby is like an executive knockoff of Stewie, and though his lines aren’t as witty or adult scandalous, as long as you’re chuckling at his autocratic bravura, the movie is amusing enough.
But here’s what’s a little weird and overly complicated about it. In Frazee’s book, Boss Baby simply…is. (The same way that Stewie is.) In “The Boss Baby,” he arrives — from Baby Corp., a baby-making corporation in the sky that’s like an assembly-line version of Heaven — as the little brother of Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi, and as the film’s grown-up, looking-back narrator by Tobey Maguire). Tim is a seven-year-old boy who thought that life was perfect when it was just him and his parents (voiced with generic sweetness by Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), crooning him to sleep with family renditions of “Blackbird.” But Tim, who indulges his penchant for make-believe by turning everything that happens to him into a story, is threatened by the new baby, because he’s suddenly not getting the attention he craves. To him, the infant is the enemy. So the whole tale we’re watching — of how Boss Baby comes in and takes over — isn’t actually happening. It’s Tim’s elaborate fantasy of what’s happening. Got it?
The conceit makes perfect sense, and doesn’t sound all that complicated, but it still makes your head hurt, because the director, Tom McGrath (of the “Madagascar” films), working from a script by Michael McCullers, tries to use the it’s-all-in-Tim’s-mind premise to turn “The Boss Baby” into a variation on “Inside Out”: not just a daffy comic trifle about an authoritarian tot, but a timeless tale of the imagination, and of how kids use it to ease their heartache. The trouble is, instead of taking us deeper into a child’s reality the way “Inside Out” did, “The Boss Baby” is at once overly busy and oddly detached from a child’s reality. The conceit stays locked on that one literal level (though occasionally we see what Tim’s parents see — just two kids playing), and so basically we’re watching an elaborately kooky junior buddy movie that pretends to be about “experience” but is really about throwing an overly arduous chase comedy in the audience’s face.
Commercially, there’s no reason that this shouldn’t work out just fine. “The Boss Baby” is blithe, fast-moving, and dazzlingly animated, with the kind of supple, light-reflecting surfaces that may remind you of the lustrous visual textures that Brad Bird brought off in “Ratatouille.” There are irresistible bits, like the opening Baby Corp. delivery sequence, or Boss Baby’s James Brown funk waddle out of his taxi, or a baby action sequence set to the theme from “S.W.A.T.,” or the moment leading up to the climactic sequence in Las Vegas that features a bunch of Elvis impersonators whose Fat Elvis patter is so slurry-cool it practically leaves words behind.
Yet there’s a reason “The Boss Baby” still feels standard issue and a wee bit tiresome. It has one of those relentless mechanical plot lines that’s all booby-trapped logistics — in this case, about how Boss Baby is on a mission from Baby Corp. to stave off an epidemic of puppy love. It seems the growing obsession with cute new dog breeds is draining away the love for babies, and at the Vegas Convention Center, it’s up to Boss Baby to gather intel on a new pooch about to be launched: a creature called the Forever Puppy whose endless adorability represents the ultimate threat. This is the definition of a clanking cartoon narrative that doesn’t matter because it doesn’t signify anything, emotional or otherwise. Whereas the plot of a movie like “Inside Out” — or, on a less heady but still artfully affecting level, “Finding Dory” or “Trolls” — has an organic undertow.
Will kids go for “The Boss Baby”? They’ll crack up at parts of it, like a grooming montage that features a bare-butt baby-powder fart, and they’ll enjoy the image of Boss Baby, with his ridiculous glowering command. So will adults. But he’s a character who deserves a better movie, one that’s more fun and less pleased with itself.