Are your children asking how babies get made? Would you prefer to never answer them, ever? Then forestall the inevitable and ruin your kids’ weekend with The Boss Baby, an unsettling talking-infant farce that doubles as an unsettling Pop Capitalist saga for the age of the corporate citizen. As the opening credits play over Irvin Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” we’re up above the clouds, where babies roll off an assembly line, like cheap toys and bland animated features. Most of the babies pinball down an industrial chute to Earth, where they’ll presumably join a happy family and start watching Minions. But a select few lucky babies are selected for “management.” They get a suit, a briefcase, a cubicle, a title.
They go to work for BabyCorp, a company that has successfully quantified all the available love in the world, with a design aesthetic that equally suggests the midcentury banality of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and the late-century banality of Dilbert. At BabyCorp, employees dream of a corner office, with a big window and a tall desk, no family to distract them, no life to bother living.
If you’ll allow me to write something I already regret thinking: The Boss Baby mythology is surprisingly complicated. Especially considering that the film starts quiet and suburban, following the imaginative adventures of young Tim Templeton. He’s seven years old, and the only-child apple of his parents’ eyes. In fantasy sequences illustrated like old-fashioned picture books, he battles giant blue gorillas, rescues his parents from sharks, flies through space. There are no smartphones or video games, so perhaps we are in the past. An older Tim provides Wonder Years-ian narration: “Back then, you relied on your imagination.” (Old Narrating Tim is Tobey Maguire, suggesting that Boss Baby is a Labor Day prequel; Young Tim is voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi, giving a remarkably sensitive performance amidst unmemorable celebrity voices.)
Tim’s life is happy, and immediately disrupted. His parents introduce him to a new member of the family. For Tim’s parents, this new baby is merely as impossible as any other endlessly requiring infant. He keeps them up all night; he ruins every dinner; he takes all their attention away. “Parental Misery” is a popular concept in our time — how many bookshelves hold Get the F— To Sleep — and the nifty-seeming idea of The Boss Baby seems to be how it shifts that misery into Tim’s formerly privileged perspective. He was the beloved only child; now, he is the forgotten elder child. But Tim discovers that this new arrival isn’t just a typical annoying baby brother. He’s a walking, talking, plotting boss baby (named, well, Boss Baby) with the voice of Alec Baldwin in full slithery-syrup elitist mode.
“It’s time,” the Boss Baby tells his big brother, “to make way for the next generation.” The Boss Baby grabs Tim’s humble Lamb doll and crushes it with an imitation Optimus Prime. He hosts a playdate and turns his baby brethren into a slobbering attack squad. He’s a cool know-it-all who likes double espressos and spicy tuna rolls. The film presents itself, for a few intriguing moments, as a war between two brothers and two generations, a kinder-gentler boy who loves imagination and a brutally disruptive hip young thing. Boss Baby is a DreamWorks movie, which means that kinetic energy is generally prized over visual coherence. In the movie’s suburbs, all the grass looks like AstroTurf and some of the faces look like they never got past beta testing. But there’s an extended backyard action sequence that hits the madcap heights of classic old Looney Tunes. Someone throws a baby through a window; it’s funny, I swear!
But then the Boss Baby takes Tim on an exposition-heavy tour of Boss Baby mythology — think The Ancient One and Dr. Strange and the multiverse, except more complicated. Suffice it to say, the Boss Babies up in the sky are concerned that people on Earth are starting to love puppies more than babies, and if they love puppies too much then they won’t want anymore babies. It’s confusing nonsense, and to explain it, the movie literally trots out a gigantic pie graph on a big screen. One thinks of General Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, desperate and dumb, explaining the need for immediate apocalypse by screaming, “Look at the big board!”
It all becomes very algorithmic. There’s a bad guy with a tangled history, and everyone is in jeopardy, and there’s a trip to Las Vegas, and I hope someone out there still likes Elvis Jokes because Boss Baby is secretly the Elvis Joking-est movie ever. It feels like the kind of movie you make when different bosses demand different things. Although the movie’s nominally set in some idea of the past, there’s a toy wizard who quotes Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and a heist scene that directly homages Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Mary Poppins jokes. There’s a whole scene where the Boss Baby and Tim ride in First Class, where the joke is how great it is to ride in First Class. “No one can afford it,” says the Boss Baby, “That’s what makes it so wonderful.”
Let’s be clear: The Boss Baby is a terrible, horrendous, totally miserable little creature. The film wants him to be lovable, a kid-friendly Jack Donaghy, but it’s more like somebody made an animated caper out of the further adventures of Jordan Belfort. Which I guess is its own weird kind of triumph. (The Wolf of Wall Street was easy to hate mid-Obama, and now it feels like the modern American Creation Myth.) But there’s a real sourness to The Boss Baby, enough to make even the most cynical little kid spit up. At one point, the Boss Baby bites a little girl on the arm, and she cries out; he throws dollar bills in her face, and she shrieks with joy. Let me sum up half the gags in this miserable movie: “Hahaha, money!”
Like many DreamWorks movies, The Boss Baby‘s most imaginative moments are the random asides. Tim’s fantasy sequences are illustrated with zesty abstraction. The villain’s backstory is explained via an elaborate 2D/3D picture-book montage. There’s a brief dream sequence where the Boss Baby and Tim race toward each other in the middle of the desert. They’re rendered as elderly children, brandishing walkers as weapons and with white beards blistering in the wind, and when they collide, a nuclear blast goes off.
Marla Frazee’s original Boss Baby picture book was, essentially, a book of lovely tangents built on a simple concept: That a newborn is precisely as all-powerful as your boss, and only slightly less uncaring. It’s the kind of “children’s book” that seems specifically designed for parents, but there’s an underlying sweetness, a light whimsy appealing for all ages.
It’s not surprising that the film adaptation tosses all that whimsy out the door. Sixteen years ago, DreamWorks released Shrek, one of the most influential films of the new millennium. Shrek was the fifth-and-a-half animated feature by DreamWorks — after the okay Antz, the great Chicken Run, forgotten 2D efforts Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado, and not forgetting the partially animated Small Soldiers, a weirdo gem that deserves mention alongside Starship Troopers as an anticipatory military-industrial parody. Shrek was also the full flowering of something DreamWorks co-founder and animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg had dreamed of: A film that could parody Disney and steal Disney’s lunch money, with equal appeal for kids and parents and the too-cool-for-school teenagers in between.
As recounted in Nicole LaPorte’s brilliant inside-Hollywood treatise The Men Who Would Be King, Katzenberg’s main note during Shrek‘s tormented years-long production process was that it had to be “edgy.” That’s a hazy word with no real definition — you could argue that defining something as “edgy” is an insult disguised as a compliment, a way of saying that it’s almost interesting — but Shrek perfected the DreamWorks style of snarky sweetness. It ripped apart fairy tales but also honored them; it didn’t believe in beauties, but it demanded a happy ending for all beasts.
Shrek also turned DreamWorks into an animation empire, ending Disney’s stranglehold on cartoons and opening the door to our modern talking-digital-animal Renaissance. That had to feel good for Katzenberg, whose forced departure from Disney led to a decade-defining lawsuit. Shrek won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Academy Award. (In what I have to believe was further shade, the main character in DreamWorks’ Shark Tale is named “Oscar.”) DreamWorks’ output since then has been prolific, and mixed. There has been brilliance, and untold disappointing sequels, and some intriguing oddities, and whatever Rise of the Guardians was. But you can see the DreamWorks style everywhere: In the cynical-saccharine Modern Family, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s rendering of Tony Stark as a smirkingly wealthy tycoon who jokes about superheroes but inevitably is just another superhero, and most of all in the last decade of Disney films, which trended more referential and self-aware either in competition or from osmosis. (Maui in Moana is a DreamWorks character invading a Disney adventure; Cars is a DreamWorks franchise, you’ll never convince me otherwise.)
Katzenberg himself left DreamWorks Animation last year. When the credits roll on The Boss Baby, you’ll see his name at the top of the “Special Thanks” list, if you stick around long enough. It’s hazy to attribute authorship to a studio boss — hazy to attribute a term like “authorship” to anything that feels so market-tested, boardroom-approved, and Elvis-joke’d — but I wonder if this is his final statement. For as much as the film wants us to laugh at the Boss Baby, we’re really meant to laugh with him, and learn from him. He hates kid stuff but loves memos. When his older brother reads him the story of Hansel and Gretel, the Boss Baby declares: “The story is about cannibalism and burning people alive? No wonder kids are so messed up!”
That’s a line that goes right back to Shrek‘s knowingly self-aware — yet never particularly challenging — take on fairy tales. It’s that tone of a teenager looking back at the stories he used to love, and deciding they were totally weird, and thinking “I’m too grown up for that dumb stuff now!” and then going to see Transformers 5. The joy of DreamWorks Animation at its best — and the opposite of joy, by Shrek Forever After — is how it modeled a new kind of kid-friendly adult storytelling that never had to move past that initial moment of awareness: A mock-cynical sincerity that circles culture endlessly backward through the primal fairy tales, stories that once appealed to children, now gilded with just enough “edge.”
In the best case scenario, this could create something like Kung Fu Panda, a marvelous adventure deconstructing the normal hero’s journey on the way to building a sweetly post-modern hero’s journey.
But there are worst case scenarios, instances where empty cynicism dissolves into sour snark, where the pretense at self-awareness becomes its own retrograde stupidity. Consider the cultural devolution from something like Wicked — a lacerating female-first deconstruction of an old children’s story — to Oz, The Great and Powerful, the story of a money-obsessed con man with a heart of gold who gets the good girl by vanquishing all the bad girls. Consider the whole quotemarky “It’s just a joke!” tone of online discourse, the rise of smirking insincerity as a political mode and an intellectual dialectic.
And then there’s The Boss Baby, merely mediocre yet disturbingly familiar, for we are all Boss Babies now. C