Every few years or so, TV and the big screen find themselves at the crosshairs of translating a small screen story for the cinematic scale. 2007’s The Simpsons Movie is still where the high bar is notched, elevating an at-home classic for a grand big screen adventure. It only took fifteen years for another of Fox’s animated series to achieve the same benchmark, continuing a welcome trend. Though also contributing to the final act for the Fox film studio before its merger; excluding the Avatar sequels, this does feel like a curtain-dropper. The Bob’s Burgers Movie is nothing less of a crossroads between both mediums and authorship, embracing the importance of family ingenuity while not skewing too far off the clever points Loren Bouchard’s series heralds on a weekly basis. Only with richer character development, slicker animation, and unexpectedly delightful set pieces.
It is essentially a supersized episode of the series, which might hobble its accessibility to those outside of the series’ fan base, just finishing their twelfth season. Though if one’s going into this summer mystery-musical hybrid absolutely blind, not having seen a single existing moment of the show, it will be simple to grasp, all the same. Patriarch Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) is a small business owner, slinging burgers at a shop along a seaside town, with wife Linda (John Roberts), and children Gene (Eugene Mirman), Tina (Dan Mintz) and Louise (Kristen Schaal). They’re persistently struggling to keep their operation afloat, behind on both rent and other expenses.
The latter is most on their minds in this case, with Bob’s equipment tied up in a loan that’s well past due. Add to that foot traffic is impacted by a sudden sinkhole in front of their space. And made worse by the discovery of a dead body, opening a murder investigation, and pitting the local landlord, Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline) as the likely culprit. Something the kids look to investigate for themselves when nobody else will, in the hopes of saving the restaurant within a seven day timeframe.
Such a logline wouldn’t be too far off base for Bouchard, co-writers Nora Smith and Jim Dauterive, and co-director Bernard Derriman than a standard 22-minute story would be. This team don’t skew away in an extravagant manner so as to alienate current fans. With the breathing room given, they quietly build on established backgrounds. Perhaps the kids more than the adults. Tina’s pursuits to achieve a summer romance with Jimmy Pesto, Jr. (Bob’s restauranteur rival’s son), and Gene’s musical aspirations – the type to involve homemade instruments crafted from napkin holders and utensils – might not be considerably new territory. Louise’s conquest for bravery is a significant step up from her TV counterpart, in terms of depth. And this film may be all the better for it.
Schaal is still in her prime, giving both voice and agitated enterprise to Louise. It’s here, where her performance takes the character to a fresh strata. Not simply a conduit for chaos in the household, as the extended runtime does allow her to tap into her insecurity. When tested by classmates as a coward, she aims to prove how brave she can be in a pinch. And yes, even with those famous bunny ears still her notable security blanket; not everything changes much with this clan. Likewise for the Fischoeders, whose shady activities only further build on the franchise’s steady world building. And in turn, leaving an open door for Kline to be coyly eccentric on film again. Aided by David Wain (cousin Grover) and Zach Galifianakis (brother Felix), he gets that chance, and runs amok in the process.
Does that mean everything works as smoothly as Bouchard would hope? Not necessarily. Considering how I’ve not seen the show in maybe six seasons, certain characters I was less familiar with maybe stuck out awkwardly. And for a film whose marketing seemed to promise a musical extravaganza, it does fall a little short. Bob’s Burgers is indeed known for seamlessly infusing music into their stories, creating a diverse sonic canvas only a handful of other shows (ex: Phineas and Ferb, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) could ascertain. Bouchard and Smith craft a few catchy, emotive numbers, but not enough for a strong Broadway-level libretto. The soundtrack really stops shy of a home run, and so does the third act, suddenly grinding that momentum of mystery to a quiet halt.
The stylistic animation, making greatly reflexive use of an expanded budget, makes easy work of compensating. Plenty of CG/2D blending is infused, but it never looks out of place, anchoring the Belchers’ universe a bit closer to reality. The show’s sense of humor – often a little middle-schooled, with scatological jabs and esoteric callbacks – always had that well in hand. That’s due in part to a very strong ensemble. Particularly the character-driven Benjamin whose dry, gruff, reactive dad character continues to shine as a voice of anxiety shared with many a small business owner, no matter the era. Roberts, Mirman and Mintz are as steady and lyrical as ever, flipping one-liners like patties mid-grill. And other series veterans like David Herman (Mr. Frond) and Gary Cole (an identity crisis-riddled Sergeant Bosco) slide their way in and out of the scene with condiment-like dexterity.
The series is a fairly easy one to pick up and get hooked into, loaded with culinary hijinks and a captivating emphasis on family, far more realistically than any Fast and Furious film. Simplistic, quirky, and no less heartfelt in its most iconic episodes. The Bob’s Burgers Movie follows that same formula to the letter, tenanted to its warm mug of low-key cartoony jive. And that would’ve been enough for me, small hiccups aside. Until Bouchard pulls a figurative rabbit out of his hat (or the ears), and engages a Pandora’s Box of newfound lore. Any film inspired by small-screen media will know how to elevate the stakes. To grow the central heart of its source material with its stars in mind? That was unexpected. But that alone helps to make this adventure, and perhaps next season, a welcome treat. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Bob’s Burgers Movie opens in theaters May 27, with a warning to stay through the credits for reasons; rated PG-13 for rude/suggestive material and language; 102 minutes.