The first sign that The Boss Baby will be a pleasant surprise — and not simply an exercise in sticking Alec Baldwin’s Scotch-mellowed tycoon’s rasp in the mouth of a CGI infant and chuckling at the juxtaposition — shows up right at the outset. Instead of meeting the titular baby as he makes his way through the automated celestial mechanism for delivering newborns to Earth (that bit gets saved for the opening credits), we get an extended encounter with his older brother Tim and his expectant parents. Right away, we know the Boss Baby is not the point; the point is the world he disrupts — the ordinary world of childhood. The world governed by love and animated by imagination.
A word on that imagination: Tim is forever building worlds for himself, using a decidedly lo-tech assortment of hats as inspiration: explorer, diver, ninja, etc. It’s no accident that the toys used throughout the film — both the regular kind and the magically functional sort the Boss Baby uses — are old-school material instead of digital. There’s no imagination required to see new worlds on your smartphone, and no real incongruity in seeing a modern-day baby with an app-laden tablet. And imagination — particularly the febrile, unfettered inventiveness of youth — provides the film with much of its visual wit, forever bouncing the viewer between the world and the world as seen by Tim. It also powers its dramatic resolution.
And a further word on the love: when the diapered disruptor does show up, he’s not just stealing the spotlight with a baby’s standard-issue selfishness; he’s importing a marketplace mindset into a culture of community, making a pie chart out of parental love and espousing the notion that the new model is always more desirable. Small wonder that he was designated as management material (as opposed to family material) when he failed to giggle after being tickled. Some human feeling has to be missing if you can cast all creation in terms of competition. And it’s love — uncommodified and indivisible — that gives form to the film’s (spoiler alert) happy ending.
All that may seem like a lot to heap on the slender shoulders of a children’s movie. Perhaps it will help to think of it instead as terra firma: the solid reality from which the story can be launched into the silly stratosphere. Because the plot here concerns the Boss Baby’s mission to stop a plot to make people want puppies instead of babies, and there’s an action-movie confrontation with the bad guy set against a rocket ship’s countdown, and there’s the usual avalanche of kiddie-clever quips and gags, plus a line or two thrown in for the old folks (“Cookies are for closers!”). It’s too silly to be a slog, but it’s also too smart to be a whiz-bang, emptyhearted bore. I could have done without the kewpie-doll faces and oversized eyes, but for the most part and where it counts, The Boss Baby gets its kids just right.