Beck Bennett has a recurring character on Saturday Night Live named Mr. Patterson; he’s sometimes referred to as the “Baby Boss.” He has the body of a 30-year-old and the mannerisms of a 12-month-old. As the subject of an occasional sketch, it’s hilarious; Bennett nails an infant’s unsteady movements perfectly. I’m not sure I would ever want to see an entire movie about the Baby Boss, though, particularly after watching the entire movie of The Boss Baby, the new DreamWorks Animation feature that inverts Bennett’s schtick (instead of a businessman acting like a baby, here’s a baby acting like a businessman) but never really lands on a joke beyond “It sure is funny when a baby wears a suit! It thinks it’s people!”

Tobey Maguire plays the narrator and the adult version of the protagonist, Tim, whose eyes are so comically large they should have cast Emma Stone as his mom. He claims this story represents his own memories of childhood, which was a serene idyll of suburban bliss until the day his dad (Jimmy Kimmel) and mom (Lisa Kudrow) brought his baby brother home from the hospital. Suddenly, Tim (Miles Christopher Bakshi, grandson of legendary animator Ralph Bakshi) found himself far from the center of attention. He stopped getting his nightly bedtime stories and special hugs. Even worse, the Boss Baby wears a suit, can talk (with the always-be-closing voice of Alec Baldwin), and appears intent on destroying Tim’s family from within.

Anyone who’s lived with a baby knows they really are the bosses of their families, a fact that should give The Boss Baby’s humor some metaphorical weight. But the film, based on a children’s book by Marla Frazee and directed by Tom McGrath, mostly avoids obvious allegories for a hectic tale of corporate espionage that involves companies run by talking babies, other companies that mass produce magic puppies, an airplane full of Elvis impersonators, and a special formula that keeps babies eternally young. Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about a toddler who acted like a boss?

It is and it isn’t. McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers are too preoccupied piling on chase and action scenes to exploit their title’s potential to its fullest. Or maybe the title doesn’t have much potential to exploit; beyond a Glengarry Glen Ross homage or two, there’s not much more to the Boss Baby character than Baldwin’s gruff voice in contrast with the little tyke’s cherubic face and adorable waddle. Maguire’s narrator concedes that he had a bit of an overactive imagination as a kid, and The Boss Baby delights in bringing his daydreams and fantasies to life in vivid colors and fluid animation. Many of these sequences are technically impressive and visually dynamic. (McGrath, who previously directed the underrated Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, boasts one of the most psychedelic styles in mainstream animation). But the comedy and story don’t measure up to the lively imagery, which comes to seem less like a way to advance the film’s plot than a necessary distraction from it.

The final scenes take an inevitable turn toward sentimentality, and the ultimate message about brotherly love is genuinely sweet. But the only scenes that have any bite are the few early ones where young Tim legitimately hates his new brother, an intriguing scenario that’s rarely been explored in family entertainment, where wholesome messages of unity and love (like the one The Boss Baby ultimately peddles) are much more the norm.

Before their reconciliation, there’s a nice Tom and Jerry vibe to Tim and the Boss Baby’s battles, and it’s easy to imagine a scenario, decades ago, where these two characters could have served as the subjects of an endless series of cartoon shorts — not unlike the way Beck Bennett brings back the Baby Boss whenever he and his writers have a new idea for him. Doomed to feature-length, The Boss Baby has nowhere to go but in circles.


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