The current generation of animation artists draws inspiration from a long list of forebears, from Tex Avery to Ralph Bakshi, but a case could made that no one has had a greater influence on the style of CGI-animated storytelling than Rube Goldberg, the San Francisco-born cartoonist known for dreaming up designs that the Random House Dictionary called “deviously complex and impractical.” A Rube Goldberg machine always took the long route to its destination, not unlike The Boss Baby from DreamWorks Animation.
Loosely adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book, The Boss Baby constructs an elaborate fable of hard-fought sibling rivalry overcome. The shortest distance between the two points of a child’s fear and jealousy at a baby sibling’s arrival, and acceptance and love of said sibling would probably look a lot more like a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood talk-it-out, perhaps gussied up with a gentle song. But the Goldbergian version takes a wild ride on corporate chutes and ladders to get where it’s going.
Like last fall’s Storks, The Boss Baby begins with an alternate-reality depiction of where babies come from. In a sequence reminiscent of vintage Warner Brothers cartoons, and scored to Fred Astaire’s rendition of “Cheek to Cheek” (cheekily so, given all the baby butts on display), heaven happily dispenses babies from an assembly line. A few are singled out for the executive track, and hence the Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin), a cubicle dweller who dreams of one day taking the top office in the baby biz.
As the Boss Baby explains, “Babies aren’t getting as much love as they used to,” so the home office conspires to compete against the threat of puppies. That’s why the suitcase-toting corporate spy Boss Baby has been sent to live with the family of seven-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Christopher Bakshi, grandson of Ralph): Mom and Dad (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel) work for PuppyCorp and its dastardly CEO Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi). It’s all enough to give the recently contented Tim hives, as the devious Boss Baby sucks all the attention.
After a strong start, The Boss Baby turns out to be fairly one-note in its humor, and not as lively as you would assume it would be. By settling into formula (like a plot point about a secret baby formula that grants eternal youth), director Tom McGrath finds himself in charge of another beat-the-clock action movie that puts emotional lessons into second position and comedy into third. The funniest stuff involves the Boss Baby’s facial expressions as they ping-pong between cute (for Mom and Dad) and shrewd (for everyone else).
But the animation charmingly evokes an earlier era (despite some fresher references, the style is 1950s-ish), and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer turns in a winningly John Williams-esque score. The extremely silly plot has an “out” in a framing device by which adult Tim (Tobey Maguire) narrates. Add all-around strong voice work and a predictably sweet message about sharing the love, and it’s all, as they say, good enough for government work.