The Boss Baby might look, at first, like any other major studio animation release. Directed by DreamWorks vet Tom McGrath (Madagascar, Megamind), the movie hits all the expected notes: the enduring importance of family, the persistence of untrustworthy/clueless adults, and the inherent hilarity of shoehorning David Mamet dialogue into a children’s movie. You’ll find a handful of genuine laughs, most courtesy of Alec Baldwin’s shrewd performance, scattered within the usual mix of schmaltz and over-the-top action sequences precisely calibrated to provide youthful delight and generate maximum profit. But aside from the slightly fresh take on a familiar concept, The Boss Baby is barely a moderate success as a kid’s flick. Perhaps it will come as good news to studio and audience alike that it works much better as an existential horror movie.
Modern existence is already pretty horrifying, and no one knows this better than 7-year-old Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi), previously an only child but now faced with the baby brother his parents bring home. If that wasn’t enough, the new arrival is far from your average infant; he wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is maniacally focused on convincing the Templetons (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) to get rid of their oldest child. It sounds like a sibling usurpation, albeit with a talking businessman baby, but it turns out there’s even more strangeness lurking under the surface.
Making the premise even more disconcerting are the suggestions that the “Boss” baby’s sinister machinations are merely a figment of Tim’s fertile imagination. We spend a fair amount of time exploring Tim’s alternate realities early on, so the eventual revelation that “Boss Baby” (further audience gaslighting: the Templeton parents haven’t even bothered to give their newborn a name) actually speaks like 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy comes as something of a relief to Tim, who has been unable to convince his parent of the fact. Turns out, Boss Baby has been sent to thwart a plan to swap puppies with babies as the focal source of human love.
Horror in kids’ movies usually takes the form of a sinister villain, a rich tradition dating back to the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And if not for the fact that production started in 2016, you might assume The Boss Baby was trying to offer this position to the current Commander in Chief. After all, Baldwin has received recent accolades for his portrayal of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, and “boss baby” itself would appear to be about as benign a label as you can apply to our 45th president.
Unfortunately, the film’s actual antagonist is Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi), the evil CEO of Puppy Co., who is developing a “Forever Puppy” that never ages, with the goal of swinging the zero-sum balance of human love from infants to puppies, thereby eliminating the need for babies altogether. It’s a diabolical scheme, and the only ones who can stand against it are young Tim and his new “brother,” who we’re told is actually an adult in all but body, thanks to a special baby formula that preserves his pre-ambulatory development status provided by Baby Corp., Puppy Co.’s corporate nemesis. It seems Baby Corp. has many aspiring Babies in their employ all working to defeat Puppy Co. Those that succeed are promoted to true Boss Baby status (complete with golden potty). Those that fail are deprived of the special baby formula, which turns them into actual babies in both mind and body.
In other words, this is a movie about an “infant” (and bear in mind there’s no indication how old Boss Baby Templeton is, or how long Baby Corp. takes to train them…they may predate recorded history) kept in a drug-induced, pre-toddler state, who must prevent a megalomaniac from committing global genocide (what exactly do you think “no more babies” means?). If he doesn’t, he will be forcibly devolved into an actual baby. And there are, if the Kafka-esque depictions of Baby Corp.’s home offices are any indication, thousands upon thousands more like him.
McGrath and company know precisely what they’re doing. They know children are never going to clue in to The Boss Baby’s dreadful undertones, so they pepper the movie with adult references to heighten our unease. There are homages to the Indiana Jones movies, and even a callout to Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis Is Everywhere,” two things few discerning tweens are likely to be cognizant of. The characters are all animated as if they inhabit a nightmare version of a Margaret Keane painting (no great leap), with everyone’s pupils dilated like acid casualties. DreamWorks knows parenthood is disturbing enough to begin with, but may have discovered the perfect way to leverage this into a theater experience that both entertains the youngsters and terrifies their parents. It’s a diabolical strategy worthy of the company that gave us Shark Tale and Shrek the Third.