Friday, March 31, 2017

The Boss Baby: Goo-goo-good!

The Boss Baby (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Many of Hollywood’s sharpest, wittiest scripts continue to be written for animated features, and The Boss Baby is no exception.

After discovering that his new baby brother has the voice, comprehension and experience
of an adult, Tim is warned not to reveal this information to their parents ... lest his new
sibling really turn the screws during some ramped-up sibling warfare.
Scripter Michael McCullers uses Marla Frazee’s popular 2010 children’s “board book” as little more than inspiration, for a laugh-a-second saga with the rat-a-tat pacing of a classic Road Runner cartoon. Although plenty of savvy humor is milked from the obvious premise — the tsunami-scale chaos that a newly arrived infant inflicts on an unprepared household — McCullers boldly takes this notion where no baby has gone before.

Director Tom McGrath and editor James Ryan keep the action fast and furious; although things sag a bit during the third act — 97 minutes might be a tot too long — all concerned have built up enough good will to surmount potential viewer restlessness. Besides, the story’s characters are cleverly conceived and well cast, with shrewdly selected voice actors: particularly the scene-stealing Alec Baldwin. It’s fun simply to spend time with them.

The story is narrated by an adult Tim (Tobey Maguire), looking back on his long-ago days as a 7-year-old only child who enjoyed his doting parents’ full attention, up to the multiple hugs, stories and songs requested each evening at bedtime. Life couldn’t be better.

It’s important to note, up front, that Tim (now voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi) has a hyperactive imagination worthy of Bill Watterson’s comic strip star Calvin, and therefore qualifies as a wholly unreliable narrator. You’ll not want to forget that crucial detail, as the droll and quite clever story progresses.

The news that he’s able to have a baby brother sends Tim into a tizzy: on the one hand fearful that his stranglehold on parental affection might be compromised; on the other hand genuinely curious about where babies “come from.” Cue the first of the film’s genius montages, as Tim envisions a heavenly assembly line process that progresses through numerous stages — the application of diapers, booties and binkies, and so forth — before a final shuttle-gate separates the infants into two categories.

Most swoop downward into the loving arms of waiting parents. A select few, however, are judged to have a greater desire for business than nurture, and therefore wind up in functionary or management positions at Baby Co., which runs the entire operation.

Which explains, when Tim rises the next morning, why his new baby brother arrives via taxi, wearing a three-piece suit (details that don’t seem to bother his parents).

Trying to retain his place in the pecking order — heck, attempting to remain anywhere in that loop — proves an impossible task. With the unyielding authority of a self-centered corporate CEO, the new arrival soon has Tim’s mother (Lisa Kudrow) and father (Jimmy Kimmel) running ragged.

Okay, we initially think; the story will focus on this inevitable power struggle and sibling rivalry (revelry?), a concept ripe with comedic possibility. And yes, for awhile McCullers’ script has ample fun with this predictable dynamic.

But such expectations are shattered when Tim overhears his baby brother talking — like an adult — with an unknown party on the other end of his supposedly toy telephone. His secret blown, this infant wolf in sheep’s business clothing warns Tim to keep his mouth shut, because he — as a fully sentient “baby” — knows precisely how to manipulate their parents. Which, to Tim’s subsequent chagrin, proves to be the case.

But the baby overplays his hand, because in fact he needs Tim’s help for a secret mission. Tim’s infant brother actually has been sent from Baby Co. to determine why, in recent years, all babies have been getting a progressively dwindling slice in the master “pie chart of love.” Babies are losing ground to puppies, but the question is how?

The Boss Baby’s presence in this particular home is no accident, because both of Tim’s parents work for Puppy Co., a massive corporation involved in everything canine: breeding, pet toys, doggie chow and kennel club trials. The answer must lie somewhere within that huge building, and so the two youngsters forge a reluctant alliance: Once the mission succeeds, this “infant” brother will be recalled to Baby Co., the memory of his presence erased, and Tim once again will have his parents to himself.

Needless to say, achieving this goal rapidly becomes more and more complicated.

Such plot machinations notwithstanding — along with the many details, detours and distractions — Baldwin remains the film’s strongest asset. His deep, deep voice, caustic wit and smug delivery are such a disconnect with the pint-sized character, that even the most innocuous remarks prompt laughter.

The initial tyrannical phase is amusing enough, with a perceptively envisioned sibling dynamic that’ll be familiar to any first child suddenly confronted by a younger sister/brother who quickly learns precisely how to manipulate adults, while simultaneously placing blame for any transgressions on the older kid.

Who, in turn, is helpless in the face of insufferable parental comments like “He’s only a baby; you have to be the mature one.”

Only a baby? Fiddlesticks. McCullers knows full well that babies are tiny predators akin to the villain in Ray Bradbury’s classic 1946 short story, “The Small Assassin,” and this film misses no opportunities to play such well-recognized tension for laughs.

The verbal sparring becomes even funnier once Boss Baby reveals his actual talents, because then Baldwin gets to riff everything from his insufferably condescending Jack Donaghy, on 30 Rock, to his dead-on Saturday Night Live impersonations of Donald Trump.

Bakshi makes a suitable foil-turned-comrade as Tim, displaying both the youthful exhilaration and quickly shattered chagrin that characterize 7-year-olds. Bakshi delivers Tim’s flights of fancy with appropriate enthusiasm, and his protests — and rising anger — are equally credible, while trying to out-maneuver his new enemy.

But this story isn’t all fun and games. McGrath and McCullers understand the importance of emotional swings, and Bakshi is equally adept at conveying Tim’s heartbreak, when he truly fears that his parents don’t love him anymore.

Steve Buscemi is equally memorable as Francis E. Francis, the founder and president of Puppy Co. The actor’s distinctive voice perfectly suits this mysterious character’s ambiguity.

Boss Baby is not without his own resources; when a situation turns dire, he can summon assistance from a team of Baby Co. underlings disguised as other neighborhood infants. ViviAnn Yee voices the cute stenographer, Staci; the group’s “muscle” — the oversize Jimbo — remains mute. The onesie jumpered triplets, all voiced by Eric Bell Jr., are a total stitch, for the way they complete each other’s sentences.

Kimmel and Kudrow, sadly, don’t bring much of their distinctive selves to their parental roles. Father and Mother are merely, well, standard-issue parents.

Composer Hans Zimmer heightens the humor and excitement with an effervescent orchestral score, and the animation style goes for the angular Warner Bros. look, rather than the rounded, cuddly verisimilitude found in most Disney and Pixar productions. It’s a good decision, which fits this film’s tone and storytelling approach.

There’s much to enjoy here, and I’ve no doubt The Boss Baby will encourage repeat viewing; you’ll laugh too much, the first time, to catch all the witty dialog.

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