I like Bob’s Burgers, an easygoing animated comedy about an underdog working-class family running a perpetually struggling hamburger joint. It’s a bit surprising to see it become a major motion picture after airing on Fox for twelve years — its low-key charms are right for the small screen. The creative team — creator Loren Bouchard, screenwriter Nora Smith, and supervising director Bernard Derriman — claim in interviews that they weren’t sure the show could be opened out to movie size until they did a series of Bob’s Burgers live-show concerts featuring puppets that cost $25 a ticket, and people liked it.
Which, I think you’ll agree, makes no sense whatsoever, at any level. People wanted to see a concert version of Bob’s Burgers featuring puppets? It cost $25 to see it? And it proves that a feature film version could work?
But the thing is, that’s exactly the kind of addled logic that would prevail within the world of Bob’s Burgers. Showbiz-maddened characters like Bob’s wife Linda Belcher (voiced by John Roberts) and eleven-year-old son Gene (Eugene Mirman) would totally argue for it, and struggle to put on just such a spectacle. Only it wouldn’t succeed.
See, one of the charms of the show is that every member of this working-class family is weird and obsessive, and they cherish their weird obsessions even though it makes their messy, precarious lives even messier and more precarious. But also more delightful and interesting. Bob Belcher (H. Jon Benjamin), for example, is a dedicated cook, and his hamburger restaurant features a new, ambitious, experimental “Burger of the Day” that in every new episode has been named and written up on the “specials” chalkboard in all its tortuous, punny glory: “Papaya Was a Rolling Stone Burger,” “What’s the Worcestershire That Could Happen Burger,” “If Looks Could Kale Burger,” “Yes I Cayenne Burger.”
According to the creative team, chefs who are fans of the show tell them this would be a disastrous policy for a struggling restaurant — too much money spent on expensive ingredients. But Bob is in this little business to pursue his passion, see, even as his anxiety over the restaurant, his family’s only lifeline, ratchets up to insomniac-muttering, eye-twitching, stomach-gurgling heights.
This is an insightful take on the plight of the working class — the societal pressure is on to get you to give up absolutely everything that doesn’t translate directly into money. You’re supposed to plane yourself down to a smooth unit in the labor force, giving up eccentricities and little luxuries that you can never afford but your whole soul craves. I hate to always be flogging George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, but it’s one of his key insights in his study of life among the impoverished — the poorer you are, the harder you have to struggle to get by, and the more societal watchdogs tell you to spend your tiny wages on cheap, healthy vegetables to eat, the more you crave the beer, the candy bar, the empty calorie splurge.
Anyway, the plot of The Bob’s Burgers Movie involves Bob and Linda Belcher facing what they hope will be their “Sunny Side Up Summer” — the song they sing in honor of the egg-topped hamburger of the day, which they’re bringing to the bank as a bribe because they can’t afford to make their business-loan payment and need an extension. They’re relying on the tender mercies of their loan officer, whom Linda calls “Mr Bank,” and he promptly turns them down and rejects their burger. Their next frail hope is persuading wealthy landlord Mr Fischoeder (Kevin Kline) to let them skip paying rent for a month to see them through the crisis — which means they’re probably screwed. Some version of potential restaurant failure is central to Bob’s Burgers’ plots in general.
To add to their woes, a giant sinkhole opens up in front of the restaurant, blocking the door and keeping any customers at all from coming in to eat burgers. This makes any chance the Belchers have of earning enough extra money in a week to cover their loan payment a hopeless dream. And just when they might’ve had a chance of snagging some tourist trade during the eightieth anniversary of Wonder Wharf, the tatty amusement park on the pier at the end of their street, with its celebratory banner slogan “80 Years of This!” Trying to help out as always, Bob’s would-be best friend Teddy (Larry Murphy), a kindhearted but dunderheaded freelance repairman, builds them a food cart so they can try selling burgers illegally on the street.
Inside the giant sinkhole lies the skeleton of the long-missing “Carny Dan,” and solving his murder becomes the latest obsession of thrill-seeking youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal). In the movie, she’s shaken out of her usual confidence when she’s called a baby on the playground because she’s still wearing the pink rabbit-ears hat that she’s always worn since preschool. This means Louise will have to test out her ability to be brave — such a strange and downbeat angle to take on a character who’s hooked on danger and exhilarated by the use of explosives.
Meanwhile, older sister Tina (Dan Mintz), age thirteen, who’s extremely odd and anxious but always striving to fit in, considers asking her longtime crush, Jimmy Jr (H. Jon Benjamin again), to be her summer boyfriend. Gene is developing doubts about his own musical talents — along with Louise’s plight, another case of a Belcher kid’s total, wacky self-confidence breaking down in a slightly depressing way in the movie. And of course, the solving of the Carny Dan murder is tied to the saving of the restaurant, and overall we begin to see the excess of plot called for when a half-hour show format is turned into a two-hour movie.
One final objection — somebody had the not-bright idea of sweetening everyone’s voices when they break out into song. The spontaneous musical numbers that erupt in Bob’s Burgers are among its modest joys, especially because it seems none of the cast members in the show can carry a tune. The songs themselves are often admirable as far as catchy tunes and inventive lyrics, and the terrible singing of them is part of the comedy. John Roberts as Linda Belcher leads the way in would-be diva-dom, with a raspy atonal caw made endearing because of her enthusiastic love of performing.
Making the characters sing better, through whatever devilish arts they practice in sound studios, was exactly the wrong way to go.
Still, I enjoyed the movie overall, in a mild-chortle sort of way. I’ve always been a fan of the voice work in the show — indeed, I’ve been a devoted follower of H. Jon Benjamin’s voice work since he played Ben in the old animated show Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (1995–2002). He’s currently voicing Sterling Archer in Archer as well as Bob Belcher, and he’s one of those entertainers who’s inherently funny, who would have to struggle not to deliver a line in a funny way. And he’s matched by a fabulous cast, plus terrific comic actors featured in recurring roles, Sarah Silverman, Paul Rudd, Megan Mullally, Gary Cole, Zach Galifianakis, Aziz Ansari, Stephanie Beatriz, and David Herman.
To give an example of the sonic richness of the show, Dan Mintz as Tina has one of those catchphrases — or maybe it could be more accurately described as a “catchsound” — that is so good it almost reaches the level of the perfectly expressive Homer Simpson “D’oh!” Tina’s signature sound is one of paralyzing early-teen angst, and it goes like this, delivered in a rasping drone of dread: “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. . . .”
I now find myself thinking “Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” when confronting some ghastly prospect of my own, just like I think “D’oh!” when I find I’ve messed things up yet again in a world practically designed to make you, me, and everyone else make ever bigger messes.
There’s a lot of fan service in the movie, too, with tons of repurposed plotlines from the show, like the recurring story of Gene’s band, the “Itty Bitty Ditty Committee.” And of course, there are many references to recurring characters who don’t have any major role to play in the film, such as Bob’s restauranteur rival Jimmy Pesto (Jay Johnstone, dropped from the show after his alleged participation in the US Capitol riot on January 6) shown outside hosing down the sidewalk at the start of the movie. Favorite minor one-off characters make appearances as well, such as the feisty raccoon Little King Trashmouth, shown in the alley by the restaurant, a tribute to the episode in which Linda became obsessed by the raccoon turf wars out by the dumpsters.
Though you’d miss all the insider stuff, the movie is still perfectly easy to follow even if you’ve never seen an episode of Bob’s Burgers. It’s a pleasant, light diversion that sides with the struggling eccentrics who are legion in the 99 percent, and might just contribute to the start of your “Sunny Side Up Summer.”