A few weeks ago, a consensus was more or less reached that the animated feature Luca represents “minor Pixar.” Even committed fans of the film might find it hard to argue otherwise: Here is a short, sweet, little romp with a handful of major characters; conflict that never reaches life-and-death stakes; and bouncier, cartoonier animation than usual. Even the usual climactic Pixar-brand chase primarily involves a few kids riding bikes up and down a hill. Compare this to last year’s “minor Pixar” Onward, which may not have been anyone’s favorite, but featured a richly imagined world merging fantasy imagery with more mundane modern conveniences (and inconveniences), and a quest’s worth of side characters and environments. Or, to make Luca look like a tone poem, compare it to The Boss Baby: Family Business, the new feature from DreamWorks Animation.
By another set of definitions, it would be easy to call Boss Baby 2 minor. First of all, it comes from DreamWorks, which apart from a brief surge of Shrek fever in the early 2000s has played enthusiastic second fiddle to the Pixar winning streak. Second, it’s a sequel, and not to one of the signature later-era DreamWorks series like How To Train Your Dragon or Trolls—just 2017’s The Boss Baby, a mishmash of a hit family comedy whose primary feature was its unwillingness to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Family Business seems to exist primarily because it’s a sequel. While Pixar has (deservedly) taken heat for making too many follow-ups, DreamWorks really depends on franchising to keep its pipeline going; only three of its last ten movies weren’t part of some multiplatform franchise or another.
But there’s something about Family Business that makes it noisier and more noticeable than “minor DreamWorks,” even though it’s receiving a Pixar-style streaming debut, concurrent with an afterthought of a theatrical release. Though DreamWorks has rarely touched the magic of Pixar or, for that matter, the better Disney Feature Animation films of the past decade-plus, they have some advantages to accompany their much-noted faults. Yes, DreamWorks productions tend to load up on celebrity voice work, even if the celebs in question aren’t especially expressive; yes, they’re larded with “adult” jokes that are more concerned with being adult than being jokes; yes, the music cues are often obvious and pandering, goading characters into cheap dance-party endings; yes, there will almost certainly be a moment where characters fly through the air in ultra-slow-motion, emitting a super-slow “nooooo” to accompany the non-gag. And yes, Shrek really is terrible. But certain DreamWorks cartoons have revealed a willingness to experiment with their form. They can play with different styles, like the lower-budget Captain Underpants and Spirit Untamed features, or a wilder sense of design that separates the Croods movies from the unimaginative Shreks and their ilk. There’s sometimes a what-the-hell spirit that some of the more manicured, workshopped Disney or Pixar features lack. DreamWorks cartoons are more antic, sure, but so are Looney Tunes, and with those characters caught in never-ending basketball tournaments, someone has to hold the torch for animated mayhem.
The house of DreamWorks comes tumbling down with The Boss Baby: Family Business. The first movie explained away its hallucinatory plot about a walking, talking, Alec Baldwin-invoiced infant angling for a promotion at the mythical BabyCorp company as the fanciful storytelling of its adult narrator. Here, the filmmakers initially appear contrite about the questionable reality of the first time: “It didn’t really make a lot of sense,” Tabitha notes about her dad’s bedtime story—the first movie, in other words. “But the jokes were good, right?” Tim offers. When Tabitha’s shrug echoed my own, I thought, wow: A sequel that’s not pulling any punches. A few minutes later, I realized those punches are more of the stop-hitting-yourself variety. Family Business reintroduces and literalizes the first movie’s nuttiness into a guardrail-free present-day adventure where Tim (James Marsden), now a father of two who has drifted apart from his former Boss Baby brother Ted (Baldwin), magically reverts back to his preteen form, just as Ted shrinks back down to baby size for most of the movie. It all happens at the behest of Tim’s actual-baby daughter Tina (Amy Sedaris), who is also a secretly-sophisticated Ted-style BabyCorp employee. Though she sends her de-aged dad and brother on a mission to stop a baby takeover plot, she really wants the two of them to reconnect as brothers. Tim also has to help his high-achieving daughter Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) at her new school—which is run by Dr. Ewin Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum), who – spoiler? – turns out to be a baby in an animatronic man suit. It’s his plans that BabyCorp needs to thwart; he wants to hypnotize the parents of the world into zombies through a smartphone app.
It’s nonsense. It’s all nonsense. And that’s fine, in theory. I’m not knocking The Boss Baby: Family Business for not maintaining a stringent sense of terra-firma reality (though it is difficult to square with what happens in the first movie, and how/why). I am knocking it for being a cacophonous mess that feels like it’s somehow being made up as it goes along, despite the terrible strain on the animators’ wrists this would create. Despite the movie’s endless vamping, its cartoon exaggeration feels secondhand, too: The biggest, crashiest chase scene, featuring a pony-drawn makeshift sleigh laying to waste a town-square Christmas tree and a movie theater, among others, delighted my five-year-old daughter, while I was mostly stuck thinking about how it reminded me of a similarly smashed-up sequence from Madagascar 3.
Not every scene in Family Business goes for Fast & Furious-level pyro. It’s also got some fantasy interludes, within what’s already an ambiguous maybe-fantasy itself, as Tim tries to coach Tabitha in the art of singing out, if she wants to sing out as gentle cartoon musical notes swirl around them. These time-killing sequences shift to a different, retro animation style that I’d normally praise as a refreshing break from the dogma of big-budget CG cartooning; at this point, most DreamWorks cartoons take a similar and welcome break at some point. But in a movie with four major characters all zipping off in different directions, it feels like the movie pleading for attention, where even the slower, more reflective moments have the intensity of desperation. The charitable explanation for all this clatter is that it stands in for the unpredictability of family life; Tim is at once afraid of losing his daughter, confused about how or if to reconnect with his brother, and somehow receiving advice from his baby, fretting all the way. In a way, the movie’s harried interpersonal chaos is the most realistic, heartening thing about it.
But chaos is exploded into wannabe fireworks at every turn, until we get to a climax where a baby in a man suit fights an actual baby with a grown-up voice and actual adults with child bodies as hordes of zombified parents descend upon them… what a miracle of invention this scene would be, if any of it were actually funny or entertaining. Instead, it’s all pitched as such a rollicking, whirling caper that Boss Baby 2 starts to feel like an endless carnival ride with delusions of theme-park grandeur. It jerks you around for 95 minutes, then sends you off insisting that it’s just explained something about family. What, exactly? It’s the same shit every one of these factory-farmed for-the-kids-but-really-the-adults wannabe confections half-assedly sets to a bit of tinkling score in the home stretch: Families stick together. Families have each other’s backs. Families are families, because of families. Even if they weren’t tautological bullshit, it would be difficult to separate the movie’s views on family from its layers of unreality, because in between the zombie parents and wild chase scenes is a more insidious form of fantasy: This is a world where people either make a lot of money, or obscene amounts of money, and the progressivism of Tim’s status as a stay-at-home dad is drowned out by the movie’s exhausting idea of fatherhood, which involves manic attempts to play pretend on an endless cycle while mom makes bank. How much of this upper-middle-class hegemony does Luca avoid simply by following the whims and weirdness of its actual characters?
Despite its origins as an act of vengeance, I don’t believe that DreamWorks Animation exists only to simultaneously vex and imitate various Disney subsidies; it’s natural that they would develop their own identity, even (or especially) if that identity centers sequels, dance parties, and smugly cocked eyebrows. But it’s notable that within a few weeks of Pixar making one of their most comfortably unaffected, small-scale, charming adventures in years, DreamWorks has issued a mission statement at such a frenzied, high-pitched frequency. Any given five minutes of The Boss Baby: Family Business could probably pass for a burst of high-energy cartoon looniness, the likes of which Disney should indulge more often. But at feature length, it feels like DreamWorks mistaking a self-destruct button for the volume knob. Maybe it’s time to knock off Pixar again, and try for something minor.