Few shows know exactly what they are from the first episode and fewer still experience no drop-off from one season to the next, especially when they’re not serialized.
Yet Bob’s Burgers, currently 12 seasons and over 200 episodes into its run on Fox’s Sunday animation block, has been a reliable pleasure from the start, with a charmingly low-key seaside backdrop and arguably the best voice cast on television. The one obvious stumbling block for a Bob’s Burgers movie is that the show is so resolutely minor, tied up in the day-to-day anxieties and miscues of a family whose lives rarely expand past the half-block between their restaurant and the decrepit boardwalk down the street. How do you expand the Belcherverse without losing the smallness that makes it great?
For series creator Loren Brouchard, who co-directed The Bob’s Burgers Movie with Bernard Derriman and co-scripted with Nora Smith, the answer is: a couple of songs, a wildly discursive murder mystery, and that’s about it. Even the songs are a goof on splashy production numbers, squeaked out by tuneless New Jersey voices and choreography that’s less Busby Berkeley than Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Yet it’s the perfect approach for a film that refuses to compromise its identity for the sake of cinematic scale, but doesn’t feel like three episodes strung together, óf. It functions elegantly as both a victory lap for longtime fans and a belated introduction to the Belchers, a family of lovable misfits and cranks that’s as genuinely close as any on television.
The opening number establishes the lived-in chemistry between Bob (H Jon Benjamin), a world-weary and anxious burger flipper, and his wife Linda (John Roberts), whose optimism cannot be suppressed, even when someone is trying to bury her family alive. Dit is 8 o’clock in the morning, and Bob is crafting a special burger for the loan officer at the bank, in the faint hope they can get an extension to keep their Ocean Avenue restaurant in business. “Your faces are making me sad,” says the banker, unmoved, as he shoos them away with seven days to make good on their payment. As soon as they retreat to a business with only one loyal customer, a giant sinkhole opens up right in front of the door and their landlord, Calvin Fischoeder (Kevin Kline), isn’t inclined to give them a break on the rent.
The scramble to save the restaurant winds up getting linked to the mystery of a carny named Cotton Candy Dan who was murdered six years earlier, but The Bob’s Burgers Movie doesn’t let all this plotting get in way of its character sketch work. It also gives time to each of the Belcher kids: Louise (Kristen Schaal) frets over the pink bunny ears that she’s kept on her head since preschool; Tina (Dan Mintz) dreams of a summer fling with Jimmy Pesto Jr, who struggles to catch chicken nuggets tossed at his mouth; and Gene (Eugene Mirman) fashions a tooth-rattling musical instrument out of plastic spoons, a rubber band and an empty metal napkin holder. As much as Bouchard had to think about how to turn Bob’s Burgers into a movie, he insists on staying true to the personal eccentricities and small-scale observational humor that makes the show great.
Unlike a comparable project like The Simpsons Movie, which rushed to squeeze in references and characters from 18 seasons, The Bob’s Burgers Movie doesn’t change the pace and tone of a typical episode any more than necessary. The murder mystery may lead to a hectic finale, but it also allows the film to drift into the weird shantytown of Carnyopolis, where ne’er-do-wells gamble over rubber prize-booth duckies. And the added stress of the restaurant possibly shutting down brings the best out of Linda, whose motherly impulse to look on the bright side gets ever more absurd. When the busted water main in the sinkhole is replaced, she praises the new, blue plastic pipe as “hip” and “modern”.
What’s most striking about The Bob’s Burgers Movie is how rarely a family as relatable as the Belchers ever makes it to the big screen in Hollywood. The grownups worry about nursing their small dream of oceanside burger artistry, the kids are wrapped up in weird fantasies and pre-teen awkwardness, and Bouchard isn’t inclined to turn them into The Incredibles to pay the rent. They may sing for the movie’s sake, but they can’t carry a tune.