Friday, 7 April 2017

Review: The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby (2D / SPOILERS)
Cert: U / 97 mins / Dir. Tom McGrath / Trailer

Okay, I'll cut straight to the chase. DreamWorks' latest animated offering The Boss Baby is either one of the blandest films I've ever seen, or one of the absolute darkest.
But let's deal with the first one first…

Ostensibly, the film is a comedy about sibling rivalry, particularly the one-sided variety which occurs when a new baby arrives in an already established family unit. The film's narrator and protagonist, Tim, is the only one not taken in by his new little brother's abundant cuteness, suspecting something's afoot with his odd 'when people aren't looking' behaviour. When Tim discovers that the infant works for the BabyCorp organisation and does indeed have a secret agenda, they begrudgingly reach an agreement to work together, in an animated re-imagining of the mismatched buddy-cop framework.

The problem is that other than slapstick and sight-gags, the film is inherently boring. The young protagonists start out as being equally irritating, and while their gradual character development eases this, it's executed in a way which is clichéd and perfunctory. The entire film works to a formula established by far more incisive and solid entries to cinematic canon, namely Toy Story and Despicable Me. And the goodwill of the former seems to be plundered by proxy as the set-props include digitally rendered versions of Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots, the Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone and bizarrely, a Skeletor action-figure (albeit one which doesn't feature the character's face, but is still definitely Skeletor). At a script-level, there are copyright-skirting references to Lord of the Rings and Mary Poppins, hoping to raise a smile with the older members of the audience.

But the mechanical and derivative nature of the storytelling is nothing compared to the presentation. The film has a sort of kitsch, Americana 1960s-sitcom aesthetic which is never fully realised thanks to the lacklustre Big Studio Animation™ production design. Truth be told, the all-too-brief Samurai Jack and popup-book vignettes are more interesting than anything else we see here. The generic pastel textures and oversize heads are the staples of background characters in other movies, but are applied across the board for this outing. We get an unremarkable animated baby in a business-suit and that's it. That's the joke. None of the characters have any... well, character, other than that one central conceit being stretched to within an inch of its life.

I suspect there's more than a bit of post-Trump satire*1 going on with The Baby's*2 high-powered business mannerisms and soundbites. Although since we're not yet in a post-Trump era, it feels worryingly out of place in a movie that plays things safe in almost every other area (or does it? see below). I'm not a parent and I'm not a child*3, so maybe that's the source of my disconnect. But I'm the older brother of a younger sister and I don't remember feeling any of the jealous anxiety that the film plays on (and it certainly didn't unearth any suppressed tensions). Maybe there's more to the emotional root of this film than the final presentation is letting on (again, see below).

The narrative juxtaposition between storytelling, memory, fantasy and reality is interesting, but never becomes more than a wry aside in the vein of 'don't kids do the funniest things?'. At one point in its development, I think The Boss Baby was probably quite a smart movie. I can only imagine that over-development resulted in the final product which underwhelmed me so. By the time you attach a main voice-cast who are now firmly in the B-List stage of their careers, it makes you wonder how much gas DreamWorks have left in the animation-tank…

The Boss Baby is a little bit funny and a little bit charming, but due to it having absolutely no personality, the film will disappear without trace. And thankfully so.

+ + + + +

…and then towards the end of the film, it began occurring to me how thematically distressing this all is. Narrated by the adult-Tim, the story exaggerates and undercuts the 'real' world frequently, showing the audience that the adventure playing out before the their eyes is a representation, rather than a documentary (obviously, but still). The white, tranquil pseudo-Heaven that we see at the beginning of the film, the literal in-story factory where children are manufactured and assigned to families if they're smiley (or behind-the-scenes 'management' if they're serious), is an established cinematic shorthand for the infamous "where do babies come from?" question.

So the Boss Baby comes into Tim's suburban life from this environment, and the boys' parents try continually to help them both get along, despite being initially and mutually distrustful. Over the course of the film, the brothers then begin to bond, working toward a common goal until they appreciate each other not in spite of their differences, but because of them. Then, with their mission accomplished, it's time for Boss Baby to return to headquarters. The farewell between the boys is bittersweet and sincere, but the same heartache isn't put upon their parents, as the Baby's minions are called upon to magically wipe their memories and remove all evidence of Boss Baby's presence in the house. Photographs are altered, toys cleared away, and life goes back to normal. The only person left in the house with knowledge of the story's events by this point is Tim. Looking down from his office, Boss Baby reflects on the lessons he's learned and decides he's ready to try the 'giggle test' again. This time he passes and is assigned to Tim's parents, being brought home as a new baby. The film ends with the three-part family being expanded to four, and Tim having the knowledge and experience to accept his new sibling from the off.

So towards the end of the film, it began occurring to me that this entire story which Tim has constructed is a coping-strategy for his first little-brother dying as an infant (probably from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but perhaps even some awful accident when the children were beating the crap out of each other), and the associated feelings of guilt and self-loathing brought on by not being welcoming to him in the first place. Tim has convinced himself that he eventually got on with the baby and engineered absolution in that he 'had to go back to Heaven'. His parents never spoke about the baby after the fact, which is why they removed all of the photographs and playthings from the house, leaving Tim's young brain to wonder over time how much of it he'd imagined, in a state of untreated, borderline-hallucinatory PTSD. When the parents conceive and produce a third child, they effectively treat it as their lost second one. And while it's certainly true that the story has a happy ending, it's not without an undertow of denial and absolute anguish.

None of this appears to be mentioned in the original book's Wiki entry or subsequent glowing reviews of course, but that's what I took away from the story. Although it's true my glass is often Half-Empty™.

So like I said, either the film is offensively bland, or horrifically dark. And given the U-rating and medium in which it's all delivered, I didn't particularly enjoy it either way…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
It's a bit Mr Peabody & Sherman.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Not particularly.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Not particularly.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Not particularly.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not particularly.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not at all.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This film features the voice of Alec Baldwin of course and he was in 1990's The Hunt For Red October, alongside James Earl 'Vader' Jones and Tim 'Palpatine' Curry.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Albeit the kind of broad-strokes satire you get on Saturday Night Live... #ComedySnob [BACK]

*2 Seriously though, the IMDB (and Google at large) just lists him as "Boss Baby". Has the actual, central character of this film not even got a name? Worse still, was the rest of the movie so overpoweringly bland that I didn't notice this at the time? I mean, it's quite often than I don't remember names of film characters once I'm out in the cinema foyer; I see it as a screenplay's commitment to making an audience actually care about what they're watching. But if the name of The Boss Baby is so unimportant (or worse still, if he deliberately hasn't got one), that makes the second-half of this review even more worrying... [BACK]

*3 Although Toys R Us and The Entertainer appear often enough on my card statements that you'd be forgiven for wondering. [BACK]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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