Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Chronicle

Babies, for all their cuteness, joyful squeals and wonderful-smelling heads, are basically jerks.

Even worse if you’re a big brother or big sister, dislodged from the center of the universe by a tiny being who doesn’t have the sense to stop peeing in his own bath water.

The Boss Baby understands this well.

And when it sticks to the core concept, the new entry from DreamWorks Animation is satisfying. But there are distracting side plots — and side plots to the side plots — that sabotage much of what’s enjoyable about the movie. In infant care terms, this is a colicky film.

It must have sounded good on paper — having Alec Baldwin voice a baby, who upon his arrival is running the Templeton family like a company president. Director Tom McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers wisely play up Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross connection, with the fast-talking baby announcing that “Cookies are for closers.”

Older brother Tim Templeton is the only one who can hear the baby talk, and they develop a sibling rivalry that amounts to a lot of Sylvester vs. Tweety Bird-style maneuvering. Each brother has a selfish agenda, trying to convince their oblivious parents (voiced by Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel) that the other one needs to go.

With a strong director — animation MVP McGrath also co-directed the Madagascar movies and the underrated Megamind — and capable writing, this should have been a sure thing.

But the writers greatly complicate things with a war between infants and puppies, a secret new breed of dog and an unnecessary save-the-world plot.

With each baby step away from the domestic story of the Templeton family and toward Puppy Co. and its evil CEO, The Boss Baby loses its way.

There are charming moments, however. The Templeton parents’ blindness to Boss Baby’s corporate attitude (“He carries a briefcase ... does anyone else think that’s a little freaky?” Tim Templeton gripes) plays well to the director’s skill with comic timing.

Like McGrath’s Penguins of Madagascar, there’s a movie’s worth of humor to be mined from the ruthless capability of something so cute and cuddly.

It helps, too, that the film was scored by Hans Zimmer, arguably the greatest composer of movie music currently working. (Zimmer found time to finish The Boss Baby score between creating the music for Hidden Figures and Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama Dunkirk, coming in July.)

But, alas, we must keep detouring to Puppy Co., an excuse to add cute animals and complicated motivations to the movie, while also sabotaging the pacing.

The second half is one big heist and chase scene, piling on unnecessary tangents and struggling to find humor. It doesn’t help that there are strong similarities with the equally disorganized yet superior Storks from last year.

A screening of The Boss Baby is not the worst way to spend an afternoon. But make sure to pair it with a nature documentary, or renewal of your subscription to National Geographic.