The lore of the “Boss Baby” universe is as extensive as it is bewildering. Loosely based on the book by Marla Frazee, 2017’s “The Boss Baby” — which was, shockingly, Oscar nominated — covered the existence of Baby Corp, the company in the sky that creates infants and sends them to Earth either to be raised by human parents or on missions to ensure babies’ hegemony as the most loved creatures. (Puppies are a close runner-up.)
A magical milk formula prevents those chosen ones from growing up, and a whole protocol à la “Men in Black” erases the memories of the adults who received these babies in suits that were never meant to be part of the family but just transient employees for the corporation.
All of these plot points remain in place for the sequel, “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which follows the franchise’s Netflix spin-off series. With director Tom McGrath, screenwriter Michael McCullers, and Alec Baldwin as the voice of Ted all returning, following several years of Baldwin’s “SNL” Trump impersonation saturating pop culture, this chapter doesn’t deviate much from the previous effort, in both its handful of qualities and numerous defects.
James Marsden replaces Tobey Maguire as the voice of Tim, as the movie picks up with the siblings as entirely opposite adults. Tim is an imaginative stay-at-home dad, while wealthy businessman Ted prioritizes success. But just because the mechanics of this alternative world had already been laid out in the last movie, don’t even entertain the thought that this follow-up might play out in a less convoluted manner.
Packing on the subplots, “Family Business” simultaneously deals with the brothers trying to rekindle their bond and Tim’s fear that he and his eldest daughter Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt, “The One and Only Ivan”) are drifting apart because of his childishness, but it’s also about kooky Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) setting up elite schools around the world turning kids into competitive geniuses for a nefarious plan. Dizzying, and far from uniquely compelling, the muddled structure mimics what would result from three episodes of a television show being smashed together.
The bulk of its running time pushes a standard save-the-world arc where Ted and Tim become children again and befriend Tim’s youngest Tina (Amy Sedaris, a genuinely fun addition to the cast), who works for Baby Corp.
One can detect the filmmakers’ anxious desperation to say something relevant about parenting and growing older while keeping the tone irreverent and exploiting Baldwin’s famous voice in the way that these themes are explored. But they never merge seamlessly, especially not when the climax has to wrap all of them up in the final confrontation.
“Family Business” is at its most creative and subtle during a fantasy sequence where Tabatha and Tim (pretending to be a boy named Marcos) enter a realm made of music notes and dazzling bright shapes. There, the young girl gets back her confidence to sing at the school’s Christmas recital. Generally, it’s in the scenes that occur in the boundless space of the characters’ minds where the designers and animators can actually do something more adventurous with color and camera movements.
Like most DreamWorks movies, this one comes across as a product for vapid consumption and not one aiming for timelessness. Humans in the studio’s projects appear as nearly interchangeable figures with large heads, smooth skin, and very few distinctive characteristics. In the waking world of the story, production designer Raymond Zibach (the “Kung Fu Panda” films) and his team have crafted some original settings — such as the Acorn station where babies write code or the stage where Tabatha sings her number — but those are exceptions in a mostly aesthetically dull production. Even Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score sounds bland, as if pulled from a pile of stock tracks.
The writer and director unsuccessfully attempt to derive humor from chases, Baldwin’s acid remarks, and the introduction of ninja babies. (The one in “Raya and the Last Dragon” turned out exponentially more memorable.) The film’s one win comes from the hilarious moments spent with Wizzie, Tim’s wizard alarm clock voiced by James McGrath, and his friendship with Skeletor from “Masters of the Universe.” That’s a buddy comedy that would merit a feature. By the same token, a quick nod to the studio’s 2D “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” perhaps to honor its late director Kelly Asbury, earns some nostalgic points.
Within his bag of ideas here, McCullers throws in a pinch of social conscience, noting that the motivation for the mischievous villain’s Baby Revolution is revenge on parents for passing on a world affected by climate change and war. But after a few brief mentions, this legitimate concern fades into the background never to be discussed again. Imagine the impact if they had figured out how to profoundly and intelligently tackle this subject in a family-friendly wide release.
Coming just two months after “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” it’s impossible not to compare the two films’ close thematic similarities, such as the father-daughter relationship amid the dangers of technology harnessed for evil. “Mitchells” charmed the general public and critics alike by maintaining a singular emotional focus and wrapping the other elements around it. “Family Business” offers an array of half-baked conflicts, all crying out to be noticed, while the creators are apparently unsure of which requires the most urgent attention.
“The Boss Baby: Family Business” opens in US theaters and on Peacock July 2.