Earlier this week, Bob’s Burgers wrapped up its 12th season. That’s no big precedent for a Fox animated sitcom about a family of five, which have a habit of running for two, even three decades (and counting). What’s impressive about Loren Bouchard’s warmly wacky Sunday night perennial is how consistent it’s remained over that time. Whereas you’d be hard-pressed to say that their neighbors in Springfield and Quahog were anywhere near a creative peak after a dozen years on the air, the Belchers have kept the laughs and pathos coming. The key to the show’s reliably high quality is a commitment to modest pleasures: Now, as at the very beginning, Bob’s Burgers is a slice of everyday life, its humor largely dependent on bouncing well-defined personalities off of each other. It seems safe to assume that Bob will never travel to space or through time.
So how do you take a comedy that’s remained winningly small for its entire life span and expand it to the bigger canvas of the big screen? That’s the challenge faced by The Bob’s Burgers Movie, the first theatrical outing for this bantering clan of patty flippers and the ensemble of small-town oddballs in their orbit. Bouchard, who co-wrote the film with Nora Smith and co-directed it with Bernard Derriman, has opted to preserve the essential values and scale of his network creation, which seems admirable in theory. But if Bob’s Burgers is still itself in movie form, it’s also stretched pretty thin at movie length. What works like gangbusters at 22 minutes loses some of its charm at nearly five times the running time.
The setup is promising, in part because it ups the stakes while still keeping the conflict steeped in the Belchers’ ordinary money troubles. (In its unpreachy way, Bob’s Burgers remains a quintessentially working-class comedy.) The big obstacle is a massive sinkhole that opens up outside of the family restaurant, making the front entrance of credits sequence fame completely inaccessible to customers. This misfortune arrives at a time when perpetually harried breadwinner Bob, voiced as always by the incomparable H. Jon Benjamin, is already behind on his payments to the bank and in danger of losing all his appliances — a dilemma met with characteristic optimism by his wife, the loopy Linda (John Roberts).
On the margins of this A plot, Bouchard adds some familiar B plots. Eldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz), as boy- (and butt-) crazy as ever, is still hopelessly infatuated with the teenage son of Bob’s restaurateur rival. Excitable, flamboyant middle child Gene (Eugene Mirman) desperately wants an audience for his noisy musical experiments. And precocious youngest kid Louise (Kristen Schaal) fears that the bunny ears she never takes off are proof that she’s immature. Though The Bob’s Burgers Movie has been made for an audience presumably acquainted with this world and its characters (there are no labored reintroductions for the uninitiated), it does end up playing a bit like a greatest hits of storylines the show has tackled before.
At least Bouchard raises these shopworn conflicts in a rousing manner. The film basically opens with a staple of big-screen animation: The introductory “I Want” number, in this case an aspirational pine for summer that gives the show’s irresistible basement-cabaret musical style some fresh orchestral oomph. Everything looks more cinematic, too. Without ditching the traditional 2D animation of the series, The Bob’s Burgers Movie applies a spit shine, punching up background details, adding more shading to character designs, and playing around (rather distractingly, truth be told) with shadows.
The film could use more musical detours; its handful of original songs are a reminder that Bob’s Burgers is rarely more delightful than when straying into community-theater song and dance. Bouchard’s other genre accent here is murder mystery: Eventually, that giant sinkhole unearths a skeleton, setting the Belcher kids on an amateur investigation to solve the crime and maybe save the business. Would it be churlish to complain that this isn’t the most intricate of whodunits, even by Hardy Boys standards? Maybe it’s that the plot hinges a bit too heavily on Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline), Bob’s wealthy eccentric of a landlord, and his bitter relatives. The aristocratic family has proved useful as a one-percent foil to the struggling but essentially happy Belchers, but a little of their Tennessee Williams squabbling goes a long way.
Bouchard packs The Bob’s Burgers Movie with cameos, supplying walk-ons to a returning roster of Belcher friends and frenemies — many played by stand-up comedy ringers, some offered only a single line here. He’s built the plot around an appreciation of his vibrant setting, a nameless wharf town of idiosyncratic locals that’s like something out of a classic Italian comedy. And he keeps the one-liners coming. Bouchard knows, in other words, what makes his show special. But he hasn’t so much deepened its appeal as broadly reiterated it, rarely capitalizing on the possibilities of a new format. What he’s made, in the end, is … a so-so episode of Bob’s Burgers, distinguishable from the 200-plus that came before it mainly in bagginess.
For some fans, just seeing these characters on the big screen may be enough. Others may find themselves thinking of older stories that could have worked better at feature length. (The show’s priceless parodies of E.T. and Jaws, for example, could easily have been expanded into adventures worthy of the multiplex.) This might just be a case of right comedy, wrong medium. On TV, Bob’s Burgers is exquisite comfort food. In movie form, it’s more like a heaping helping of leftovers, bigger in portion than flavor.
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