“The Boss Baby” sounds like a killer concept for an animated caper to attract kids young and old. Hiring Alec Baldwin to lend his calmly melodious-with-a-whiff-of-malice intonations for a tiny tycoon? Right on the money—and kudos to the movie’s makers for sneaking in a “Glengarry Glen Ross” gag. Add a plotline that pits adorable tykes vs. cuddly puppies in a cuteness competition and what could go wrong?
A lot, it seems. Much like any child, even a supposedly surefire nugget of an idea requires careful nurturing. In this case, “The Boss Baby” often tries too hard and succeeds too little. Part of the problem is its source material, Marla Frazee’s 36-page picture book from 2010 whose irresistible premise transformed it into a go-to shower gift. It boiled down to a precious metaphor about how a new baby in a business-suit onesie treats his parents like harried employees, conducting middle-of-the-night meetings and squalling constant demands. That novel notion pops up early in the film and produces some of the funnier and more emotionally relatable moments.
Starting off with only enough material for a cartoon short, however, director Tom McGrath (the “Madagascar” franchise) and writer Michael McCullers (the “Austin Powers” sequels, “Baby Mama”) add a sibling rivalry element with a seven-year-old older brother, Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi, grandson of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi of “Fritz the Cat” notoriety), who resents this usurper of parental love and recasts him in his imagination as a kind of briefcase-toting corporate raider of affection.
This approach borrows from the same genetic material that made Pixar’s “Inside Out” so popular—which took its cues from the workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind. But that story, partly based on how brains really work, was meticulously plotted. Here, there’s a lack of logic and coherence that is regularly compounded by a slapdash execution as messy as a week’s worth of poopy diapers. In the book, Boss Baby just exists. Here, there is a long and not especially inspired credits sequence involving a conveyor belt that decides whether or not an infant joins a family after taking a tickle test. If no giggles are heard, he or she are declared “management” and become part of an entity known as Baby Corp., a competitor to Puppy Co., where Tim’s mom and dad both work.
If this doesn’t sound exactly like a bundle of laugh-out-loud joy, that’s because it really isn’t.
Efforts, some strained, are made to inject zing both visually and story-wise into the proceedings. The look of old-school Warner Bros. cartoons are emulated, including a stylized nod to German Expressionism. But instead of rightfully milking Baldwin’s bad-ass babe for all he’s worth, there are detours involving action sequences featuring the themes from ‘70s TV shows “S.W.A.T.” and “The Six Million Dollar Man” as well as a lame homage to pirate flicks. We learn that Tim awakens every day at 7 a.m. to an alarm clock with a replica of a wizard that is clearly Tolkien-inspired as it declares, “Wake up, halflings!” It’s a cool tchotchke but has little to no useful connection to matters at hand.
The creators of “The Boss Baby” desperately try to find hooks for all ages to enjoy, inserting the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as the song Tim’s folks use to sing him to sleep (which leads to a Lennon-McCartney name check). They tease with naked bottoms, tee-hee-inducing pixelated baby privates and a wee fart that results in an expulsion of baby powder. The script even mentions “Baby Jesus” in one of the better jokes. Sure, drop in a power nap reference and feature a magic formula that is an actual baby formula. But as much as I got a kick out of a gathering of chubby Elvis imitators heading to Vegas that uses on-screen subtitles for the slurred Presley-ese being spoken, it has little connection to the race-to-the-end finale.
As Boss Baby and Tim go about finding common brotherly ground, including a weird moment involving mutual pacifiers, some rather familiar voices are heard. They include Tobey Maguire as the older Tim who narrates, Steve Buscemi as a villainous Puppy Co. honcho, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow as Tim’s parents—but none have the memorable impact that Baldwin has. To put matters in perspective, “The Boss Baby” doesn’t give you that choking on a hairball feeling that last year’s felonious talking-feline movie “Nine Lives” did. But if pint-size chatter is what you’re after, 1989’s “Look Who’s Talking,” with its toddler whose thoughts are spoken with smart-aleck verve by Bruce Willis, might make for a more satisfying movie night.