The Boss Baby
Director: Tom McGrath
Writer: Michael McCullers based on The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee
Stars: Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Lisa Kudrow
A review by Billy Seguire
Where do babies come from? A special place in the sky with soft clouds, soothing music, and the callous, unfeeling ethics of middle-management? Maybe not, but this is the conceit of The Boss Baby, the latest animated film Dreamworks has produced in a peculiar string of films that hit the core notes of emotional poignancy while still providing an entertainingly surreal narrative. To be honest, I didn’t expect to like The Boss Baby as much as I did, but the wild approach director Tom McGrath has taken on this bizarre premise stuck with me long after the initial screening ended. I found myself needing to share my wonder at how The Boss Baby perfectly captures the childhood experience in a powerful exploration of family and love, while still somehow making jokes about Alec Baldwin’s bare bottom.
First and foremost, The Boss Baby is a colourful and imaginative film. Seven year old Tim is described as having too much imagination, and we get to see this imagination play out in multiple cel-shaded sequences of pirate ships and deep sea exploration as Tim lives out wild fantasies inside his head. It’s a style that doesn’t hold back in its childlike energy where everything is filled with fun and adventure. Even the real world is colourful and bright with light bouncing off of every surface. This is undoubtedly a film geared towards a younger audience and I can guarantee kids will be entranced by the visuals playing out on screen. In a cinematic landscape of endless gritty reimaginings, The Boss Baby produces spectacular scenes that fill the screen with bright, visually-rich imagery. It’s a testament to the power of Dreamworks’ animation that The Boss Baby is able to get downright surreal with sequences that replace the rising sun with a baby’s head in a frightening Teletubbies homage, and it’s not even the strangest visual gag in the scene.
That sense of imagination and wonder does occasionally go a little too far. Watching a grown man hurl a baby onto the hood of a car in an action sequence is jarring, though memorable to the point where I feel like I actually enjoyed it more than I originally thought. While these throwaway moments occasionally take away from the plot, you knew from the premise things were going to get weird. With the exception of an end sequence that I thought went a bit too far off the rails, it all holds together fairly well. In The Boss Baby, babies aren’t really made in the way we understand it down here. They’re really from BabyCorp, an ethereal Corporation built on the accumulation of love. Good babies get sent to families, bad babies get sent to management. Definitely management material, Alec Baldwin’s Boss Baby is sent down to Earth to spy on a set of parents who work for rival PuppyCo, and the complication that comes from older brother Tim drives the plot. As you might imagine, the hows and whys aren’t addressed in any great detail, but it’s a heck of a premise if you buy into it.
Overall, the key word here is cute. The character design of Tim and the babies is aggressively adorable in a way that actually works to indulge your sweet side in all the right ways. The huge eyes and chubby cheeks make characters look like young children and gives them a strong start in building a connection with an audience. It’s definitely emotional manipulation, but the style is also completely right for this film. When characters get sad, you feel your heart sink as you instinctually empathise with these kids and want to comfort them through their hardships.
Present both in the original book and this expanded film, the narrative strength of The Boss Baby comes from the childhood anxiety of losing your parents love when a younger brother or sister comes along. How love works, how you can love more than one person with all your heart, or how love grows when you share it, are core concepts within the story, and the gradual tolerance, acceptance, and eventual love for his brother Tim develops are truly fascinating to watch. Likewise, the film takes the most unfeeling of characters, the corporate stooge, and gives him a heart by showing him in a lonely light of empty corporate accomplishment.
Don’t let my overly analytical take fool you, though. This is also definitely a comedy. There were tons of lines in this film I found myself quoting the next few days and visual gags that absolutely work. I laughed hard throughout, even when I still wasn’t genuinely sure I wanted to. Dreamworks is notorious for the way they’ve handled parody ever since the days of Shrek, and we still occasionally have scenes that are straight up ripped out of other films. I really didn’t need to see Tim and Boss Baby sneaking out of the rear end of a bouncy house in a parody of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. This is definitely a film that aims for a G rating in its humour, but it doesn’t shy away from providing entertainment for older viewers. I think it does enough of this without needing to take the easy way out with these references.
One exception where I think the reference to other media works well is Tim’s special song, sung to him by his parents every night before he goes to sleep. The use of Blackbird by The Beatles here gives an immediate realism to Tim’s perspective to who his parents are and how he feels the song was written just for him. Apart from the producers actually getting Alec Baldwin to say “cookies are for closers”, it was the best use of a reference to bring us to exactly where we needed to be emotionally, and presented a pretty great setup for a joke that comes midway through the film.
Alec Baldwin is in full on 30 Rock mode as the unfeeling corporate executive Boss Baby, with a big part of the reveal hinging on his belief in the importance of memos. While Baldwin’s performance is classic, well-refined, and certainly the draw towards actually seeing The Boss Baby for many fans, I found Miles Christopher Bakshi’s performance as Tim to be far more nuanced and affecting. His earnest, raw portrayal of a boy who honestly believes his parents have stopped loving him is heartbreaking, and the arc of Tim going from hating the Boss Baby to embracing him as a younger brother is all the more poignant because of his strong portrayal. It’s one of the best performances I’ve heard from a child actor yet.
Thankfully, it’s in Tim where The Boss Baby truly resonates as a film. The story of Tim and his newborn brother holds solid emotional weight and shines in its quiet, gentler moments as much as it does in its loud and colourful action sequences. In the same way Inside Out fully explored teenage angst and confusion, The Boss Baby approaches the world from the viewpoint of a seven year old. While never quite reaching the same highpoints as Inside Out, the story will still absolutely resonate. The bond of two brothers and what it takes to love and support one another is the real reason to see this film.
If I had to pinpoint any true weakness in this film, I’d definitely point towards the antagonist and really the lack of any justification to do with his story. Never is there any real motivation for this character and the story thread remains a MacGuffin for the entire runtime of the film. The culminating fight between our heroes and this character unfortunately plays more towards the nonsense end of the film’s writing and the whole thing takes me just a little bit too much out of the film. I never found myself invested in this end of the plot and found myself drawn more to the story of our two brothers. Steve Buscemi does his best to salvage what little meat there is to the role, but it’s an archetype he’s played before to better effect in Monster’s Inc. or Monster House where his character was actually given a motivation and heart of his own. What we end up with here is, thankfully, dispatched with enough running time left in the film to wrap up what I considered to be the real heart of The Boss Baby in Tim and his newborn brother.
Watch It. This is a fun family film that I think younger children, parents, and open-minded adults will actually really enjoy. Older kids, teens, or those without any connection to the world of babies may be put off by the subject matter, but if you’re able to get past the infantile imagery, the level of imaginative scenes that play to the strengths of animation and colour keeps The Boss Baby interesting. I am admittedly a sucker for animated films, but what could have been a poor man’s Look Who’s Talking is saved by incredibly confident visual humour and a story that knows both when to take itself seriously and when to truly go wild and crazy.