Somewhere down the line since Home was miraculously able to keep Dreamworks Animation Studios alive at a time when its death seemed so very imminent, somebody up top in the creative sector must have realized “Hey, we have a color and shapes and depth that we can actually play with in our animated work rather than rely on our pop culture references and obnoxious music cues!” The consequence of which we’ve had three of the best-looking animated works they’ve supplied us to date – Kung Fu Panda 3 (still my favorite DWA movie except for maybe How to Train Your Dragon), Trolls, and now 2017’s The Boss Baby. The Boss Baby, not having nearly as much moxie about lighting as Panda or color and camera movements as Trolls, is by a large margin the least interesting-looking of the three but it’s also the most pleasant surprise of them as well. That was going to happen regardless when a movie apparently invented solely on the gimmick of having Alec Baldwin play that cold businessman voice on a baby’s body comes across as halfway distant.
The Boss Baby is surprisingly more than that. It’s a shockingly well-earned narrative on growing up and how small changes to a child as young as 7-year-old Timothy Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi, grandson of the legendary animator Ralph) can be perceived as big things, something director Tom McGrath relishes portraying with the scale of set designs within spaces as small as Tim’s room to as vast as Las Vegas. The animation team ups the size of walls and shadows if Tim is in a bad mood, stretches the depth of field if Tim is feeling distant or isolated, practically shakes the frame with intense chase action setpieces. All with the editing by James Ryan letting us know what Tim sees happening is not necessarily what IS happening without undoing the bigness of Tim’s imagination that we’re spending our time in.
Which is probably what makes Michael McCullers’ screenplay (adapting Marla Frazee’s children’s picture book, though I do not know how faithful it is an adaptation) get to work so well despite a few logical gaps that go beyond “this is a kid making it up to explain his brother’s existence” and some dodgy dialogue (I have a friend who works in a theater who walked in on the line “Suck it! Don’t you want to know where baby’s come from?” without seeing what’s on the screen and boy that must’ve been uncomfortable for him). McCullers starts simple enough: Tim’s parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) come home suddenly one day with a new baby (Baldwin) who dresses in suits and spends his day plotting a takeover of the parents’ invested love towards the two children. Tim is obviously using this theory to deal with the fact that he’s getting too old for the bedtime stories and that he has a responsibility to take care of his new brother and both Bakshi and Baldwin are great enough voice actors to give this “worlds apart” antagonism that lends the two a believable cadence as siblings but a prickliness to grow into their distrust and hate of each other. That’s when The Boss Baby is at its best, including a surprisingly uninsulting usage of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as an emotional motif. It’s still got its problems – the trailer already warned me of the random audience-ignorant throwback to Baldwin’s famous Glengarry Glen Ross rant and I still rolled my eyes; the movie trades DWA’s soundtrack and pop culture reference M.O. for toilet humor, which is the number one way for me to guess a family film hates kids – but it’s satisfying during that first third of its runtime.
Then there’s the moment it doubles down on what the Boss Baby’s secret mission is, for it is established early on in a fairly cute opening credits sequence depicting a Busby-Berkeley-esque factory for babies to be either sent in the real world or work for Baby Corp. with the consciousness of an adult… and that’s already weird and something that demands a lot more from the audience than you want to do for a children’s film out the gate. Anyway, the deeper Tim and the Boss Baby get into working on that case, the more convoluted the screenplay becomes and the tangle never really gets cleared up until the last 15 minutes when our protagonists are in the wind-down of their accomplishments and trying to remember this is essentially about Tim dealing with his family issues, not whatever the Boss Baby’s career aspirations are meant to be. This is a very labored plot that doesn’t seem to feel that family dynamic is enough to carry the film and while I don’t think it’s wrong, I would have rather it taken a leap of faith on just being Tim vs. The Boss Baby than the direction it went with introducing The Big Boss Baby (Steve Buscemi) as a myth and then an antagonist.
OK, so when I actually look back at the mess that is the plot, my eyes do start to water, but they’re not watering when I look at the roundness of the baby characters (The Boss Baby has a whole squad and this is the closest DWA came to good-looking human animation with how adorable they are shaped) or the brilliant boldness of the fantasy-esque sequences in Baby Corp in all its light, white-set colorings. Nobody expected to hate The Boss Baby more than I did as an uninspired children’s flick without a semblance of fun, but it’s actually just light enough as fluff to make me consider that maybe Dreamworks Animation has been growing better and better. Maybe I won’t even dread the next film they make with this streak they’re on.