'The Boss Baby: Family Business' Review: A Frantic, Desperate, Sweaty Sequel06/30/2021
Two weeks ago, Pixar released its latest original film, Luca, straight to Disney+. Some reviews (like the one from /Film’s own Hoai-Tran Bui) praised the film for being a fine depiction of the coming of age of two young boys, while others dubbed Luca as “minor Pixar”. Pixar movies, fairly or not, are graded on a curve. Audiences and critics expect the very best from Pixar – even after a decade in which they released sequels and prequels far more than original stories – and when they get something less, it feels like a big disappointment.
But here are we are at the start of a new month, with another studio releasing its animated film to its own streaming service. DreamWorks Animation movies aren’t graded on a curve, in part because when they’re good, it’s a miracle. The Boss Baby: Family Business is many things. But it’s the opposite of a miracle.
The 2017 original, inspired by the books by Marla Frazee, at least tackled the question of sibling rivalry from a novel idea of an older sibling perceiving their new baby sibling as a ruthless businessman robbing them of their parents’ unconditional love. But The Boss Baby wasn’t just narrated from the adult perspective of the lead character; it concluded by showing the audience grown-up versions of both Tim and Ted Templeton (voiced then by Tobey Maguire and Alec Baldwin), with Tim’s eldest daughter being shocked to see her baby sister as a boss baby too. How can a sequel to this manical animated film possibly bring Tim and Ted back to their youth? As Family Business shows, there is an answer: by thinking of the sweatiest, most desperate, and lowest-common-denominator ways possible.
When Family Business begins, Tim (now voiced by James Marsden) sees himself as a great dad, still indulging in his overactive imagination when playing with his daughter Tabitha and baby sister Tina. But Tim is horrified that Tabitha’s imagination is far more limited than his own, and she’s interested in things like learning. (More importantly, she seems more interested in Ted as her uncle than Tim as her father.) Tim is doubly horrified when he too learns that Tina (voiced by Amy Sedaris) is just like his little brother, a walking, talking infant straight from the halls of BabyCorp. Tim and Ted, grown up though they are, have been recruited for a special mission, to learn more about a pioneering child psychologist (Jeff Goldblum) whose spread of high-performing schools across the globe may hide a nefarious plan to dominate the world. So thanks to a special potion, Tim and Ted revert to their youthful selves for 48 hours to…y’know, considering that Michael McCullers’ script is so shoddily designed, there’s next to no purpose in talking about the story much further.
There were perhaps ways to take a second Boss Baby in a new, intriguing direction. As the first film ended, it raised the question: what would it be like for the gender dynamic to switch, from being about brothers to sisters? But Tabitha is little more than a plot device; she and Tina barely interact with each other, and seem to love each other quite a lot. (This leaves aside their mother and Tim’s wife, voiced by Eva Longoria, in part because the script has absolutely no use for her.) So instead, we just get more of Tim and Ted fighting with each other, even though the novelty of seeing a baby talk and act like Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock got progressively less funny by the end of the original film, let alone seeing it revived for a sequel.
Tom McGrath, who directed the original, brings the same frantic pacing to Family Business as was the case before, in the hopes that moving things super-quickly will elide the film’s many creative problems. But at least in the first Boss Baby, the depiction of Tim’s imagination felt clever and creative, as the audience is placed into the mind of a little boy who takes far more comfort in his mental concoctions than the dull vagaries of the real world. Here, there’s never a point where seeing Tim’s imagination feels anything less than sad. This is a film about an adult desperate to reclaim his daughter’s childhood…which really means he’s trying to reclaim his own childhood instead of growing up just a wee bit. There’s one scene where the film approaches a more honest critique of Tim, when his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) sarcastically refer to Tim’s imaginary flights of fancy as “Tim Time.” But for the most part, The Boss Baby: Family Business sees no problem in embracing your childhood no matter how old you are, and how depressing it may be to act like a child well beyond a certain age.
If there’s any saving grace to Family Business, it’s Goldblum, an actor whose distinctive and unique style of speaking is perfectly suited to animation, so much so that it’s odd he’s appeared in so few animated films before now. As the film’s true villain, he’s extremely lively and funny (even if his character’s evil plans feel a few years out of date). Sedaris, sadly, gets very little to do after Tina’s introduction as being a BabyCorp agent; she’s too good for a nothing role like this.
The Boss Baby: Family Business is about childhood, and the value of acting like a kid, a truth that is unavoidable for how often the theme is discussed. But it’s not actually about children. This is a movie less about being a child, and more about adults desperate to pause the natural progression of time in their own lives. Here, again, is where Luca comes into play. There’s a film that largely eschews pop-culture references and presents a calm, sweet story about growing up beyond your own family. Here is a film whose title character references Norma Rae (because what child doesn’t love that movie), with in-jokes about characters watching other DreamWorks movies, and trying its hardest to shoehorn in a thoughtful idea without doing any of the work. DreamWorks Animation can make solid family entertainment. But they haven’t this time.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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