If you had asked me ten years ago, when Shrek the Third was farting its way through theaters, which major American animation studio I expected to be pushing the medium forward the most in 2017, between Pixar, Disney, or the Shrekmeisters at DreamWorks, I would have frankly looked at you like you'd just grown two extra heads.* So imagine my surprise that here we are, just one decade later, and I think I'm ready to officially declare that DreamWorks is by far the most interesting American animation studio. Not that "interesting" is the same as "best" - at the basic technical level of making animated movies, nothing DreamWorks has is up to the level of Disney's Zootopia and Moana, and even when they're being as blatantly lazy as in these sequel-obsessed days, nobody can match the power of Pixar's computers (meanwhile, I'd say that none of the three are telling particularly groundbreaking or complex stories, certainly not with Laika sitting right there, but that's a different complaint for a different time).

Still, Disney and Pixar films are aesthetically safe: just keep iterating ever closer towards photorealism and call it a day. DreamWorks, since the start of 2016, has been on quite a hell of a run of doing stuff with their movies. Kung Fu Panda 3, while mostly content to build on the previous Kung Fu Pandas, has that breathtaking, painterly spirit realm. Trolls was nothing less than eruption of creative energy, bringing the spirit of midcentury cartoon character animation back to 3-D CGI production, playing around with camera angles, and having a complete blast with playful arts & crafts-style texturing. And now The Boss Baby makes three, to my utter surprise. Even at its most sedate, the film has a surprisingly bold low-fi approach to backgrounds and character modeling, one that would look cheap and easy if it wasn't so snugly fitted to the film's emotional POV; and at it's least sedate, the film is having a field day mixing 3-D characters and flat, heavily graphic backgrounds made up of slabs of dramatic color. The clearest comparison I can make is that if The Powerpuff Girls was redone as 3-D animation, it would look awfully like what the creators of The Boss Baby have come up with.

The film's aesthetic is the biggest draw for me, but I get that it's not going to be that way for everybody, so let me go bigger. The Boss Baby is the best film made by any of the big animations studios (the above three, Illumination, and what the hell, let's throw Blue Sky in there) since Pixar's Inside Out. That's despite having an amazingly awful premise: you know how newborn babies come along and they so thoroughly control everything that happens in the household, that they're basically like the boss of the family? Well, what if one was actually a boss? Y'know, wearing a trim little business suit and tie, and was voiced by Alec Baldwin, doing a pandering riff on his Glengarry Glen Ross performance that leaves a really glaring question as to who this movie's target audience is supposed to be.

First, the good news: The Boss Baby has the good sense to treat its central metaphor like a metaphor. We're never completely sure whether any of this story is actually taking place, or if it's all just the fantasy that 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi, grandson of indie animation legend Ralph Bakshi) concocts to help emotionally cope with the trauma of losing his privileged status as an only child. After all, the literal first thing that Tim tells about himself (the grown Tim is narrated by Toby Maguire, with marvelously light-touch irony) is that he's particularly adept at placing himself into fantasy worlds. But, the fantasy worlds are always very clearly demarcated visually, using the strong graphic flatness and bright colors I mentioned above. On the other hand - or back to the first hand - even the "real world" of The Boss Baby feels, well, childish: it's bluntly established in solid patches of color and bereft of much detail, trailing into indistinct digital fog at a fairly shallow depth. Honestly, what I kept thinking of were the flat, smeary backgrounds in the now-22-year-old Toy Story, and I'm not 100% sure that it's a coincidence (I mean, for one thing, the story of The Boss Baby, written by Michael McCullers after Marla Frazee's book, is a straightforward Toy Story copycat, with "new little brother" standing in for "electronic spaceman toy"). One of the most curious things about the film, somewhat explained by the final scene, is that it takes place in a chronological melange. Sometimes, it seems to be 1985 or so. Sometimes, it seems to be the early 2010s. We're invited to think that this is a story about the perspective of a child in the 1980s, as understood from the perspective of a child in 2017 - and that, I think, explains why so much of the film's mise en scène is kind of sketched in and insufficiently real, and why its chief aesthetic touchstone is a 1995 level of technology that both an '80s kid and a 2010s kid could plausible have nostalgia for.

Anyway, I have gotten afield of the point: regardless of whether the story (involving a conspiracy by the puppy corporation to flood the market on cute little things, and a counter-conspiracy by the baby corporation to stop the puppies) "actually" happens, it's always obviously a possibility that what we're watching is a particularly fanciful, apparently socially isolated (all of Tim's happy memories center around his parents, voiced with warm anonymity by Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel, and there are no other 7-year-olds to be found in the movie), child's interpretation of life as augmented by his fragmentary, pop culture-assisted comprehension of the adult world. It's kind of delightfully low-key profound, particularly in that final scene, which is absolutely not looking to make you cry in any way, and still managed to get me surprisingly choked up.

All of which is well and good, and runs the risk of missing one other important point about The Boss Baby: it's really damn funny. Director Tom McGrath isn't the most reliable of animation directors (three-fifths of his feature directorial consists of co-directing DreamWorks's Madagascar films, only the last of which is any damn good), but in this case, at least, he faultlessly manages the comic timing of a film in which timing is a particularly visible need. The script is wordy as hell, full of quick banter being lobbed back and forth, some of it random absurdity, much it gentle mockery of the jargon and energy of American corporate culture (so much of the film is a knowing jab at the soulless efficiency of the managerial class that I have to once again wonder who the hell this movie was aimed at: possibly it is that unicorn among family movies, one that is simultaneously enjoyable by parents and children for different reasons). Plenty of the gags are obvious parody that any viewer sophisticated enough to grasp the punchline will see coming from a mile away. Plenty of them aren't, though, and even the broadest, most self-evident groaners about high-maintenance bosses tend to actually work, somewhere between Baldwin's sharp delivery (he clearly had a great time with the part), and Bakshi's just-sufficiently-aware bemusement at the fundamental absurdity of the premise.

The film goes precisely where you expect it to, though by a slightly more circuitous route than I anticipated; but it goes there with such commitment. I doubt that this is the final word in movies about children's opinions about suddenly having to deal with newborn siblings, but it's an awfully good one, and the easygoing, fanciful approach to the whole thing is utterly delightful. Maybe I'm overrating it because it managed to be so much better than my expectations, which were at basement level, but The Boss Baby is one of the most completely, consistently satisfying children's movies I've seen in a damn long time.




*Alright, so I'm cheating: 2007, the year of Meet the Robinsons and some 18 months after Chicken Little, was the capstone to probably the worst period in the history of the Walt Disney Animation Studio. But the Disney fan quickly comes to understand that periods of great work alternate with periods of awful work from that studio, and that even the Chicken Littles of the world will someday pass.