Well, they made a sequel to “The Boss Baby.” The 2017 DreamWorks film, extremely loosely based on Marla Frazee’s children’s book series, bet big on the appeal of a dyspeptic, super-intelligent, black-suited infant speaking with the voice of Alec Baldwin while doing un-babylike things, and it was a bet that paid off handsomely, to the tune of half a billion in worldwide box office and an Oscar nomination. Arriving in theaters earlier that initially planned, with a simultaneous streaming bow on Peacock, “The Boss Baby: Family Business” is making a similarly big bet that family audiences, otherwise bereft of new attractions, are ready to return to theaters. The film itself, unfortunately, is generally less interesting than the business matters behind it, a thoroughly competent affair that tosses in just enough off-the-wall elements to liven up a fairly basic retread of the original’s formula.
And honestly, kudos to returning director Tom McGrath for twice managing to hit all of the standard kidpic paces with a concept this insane. For film with a one-joke premise, the original “Boss Baby” actually had a rather complicated plot, in which a standard sibling rivalry conflict between a seven-year-old boy and his baby brother is complicated by the fact that the baby in question, Ted (Baldwin), is in fact an undercover agent from the all-powerful Baby Corp. conglomerate, equipped with specially powered formula and pacifiers, and sent on a reconnaissance mission to take down Big Puppy. Wasting nary a minute of its nearly two-hour running time catching newcomers up on the larger Boss Baby lore, “Family Business” dives headfirst into a plot that’s no less dense.
Now an adult with children of his own, “Boss Baby” protagonist Tim (James Marsden) has become estranged from his younger brother, now a high-powered, busy Boss Man with no memory of his unusual infancy. (If the first film invited parallels to Donald Trump largely due to Baldwin’s regular impressions on “SNL,” here Baldwin’s adult character seems consciously modelled on the disgraced ex-president’s pre-politics aesthetic.) Tim’s oldest daughter, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), has been growing increasingly embarrassed by her goofy stay-at-home dad, while becoming obsessed with studying and worshipful of her successful Boss Uncle. His youngest, Tina, appears to be just a normal baby, so it’s no surprise when one night she reveals herself to be a Baby Corp. agent, swapping her onesie for a suit and tie, and speaking with the no-nonsense authority of Amy Sedaris.
As Tina explains, her baby bosses back at the head office have sent her to reunite Tim and Ted to investigate the principal of Tabitha’s competition-obsessed private school, a smooth-taking technocrat named Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum). First, she shrinks the two of them back down to their ages in the original film – Tim a grade-schooler, Ted a baby – then sends them off to school, where Tim gets to befriend his own daughter in the guise of a new classmate, and Ted is forced to rally his fellow babies to break out of the nursery.
Even more so than its predecessor, there’s something perversely praiseworthy about how successfully “Boss Baby: Family Business” nods to the inherently dystopian elements of its premise while sanding them down into something so inoffensive. The idea of a doe-eyed, diapered infant weighted down with all of the cynicism and lovelessness of the corporate world is the kind of prospect that becomes more and more depressing the longer you think about it, and there are some admirably strange moments here – particularly the sight of a vast workfloor populated by toddlers who have been trained to code iPhone apps – where one realizes just how easily this light family lark could tip into a brutal capitalist critique. (There’s also a brief musical number about the coming climate-change apocalypse, which is even stranger.)
But these moments are fleeting, overwhelmed by the more paint-by-numbers emotional arcs (Tim learns to appreciate his daughter, Ted re-learns the importance of family) and plenty of DreamWorks’ patented cultural references aimed far above the heads of the target demo. (To be fair, there is substantially less diaper-based humor here than in the first go-round, which is welcome.) The action scenes are brisk and well-orchestrated, and the sequences set inside Tim’s imagination, though generally untethered from the rest of the film, are nonetheless its most inventive and colorful, making one wonder how much more fun “Boss Baby: Family Business” might be if this sort of idiosyncratic visual creativity were allowed to flourish throughout. But ultimately, this film isn’t personal – it’s business.