Boss Baby Is Fun, and Will Still Be Bearable on the 112th Viewing
“Leaders are made; they are not born,” Vince Lombardi once famously lied. Some leaders are born—newborn, in fact. They wear tiny power suits, tote tiny briefcases, and get more done before nap time than most people attempt in an entire day. They may not have fine motor skills, primary teeth, or full bladder continence, but the managerial talent and corner-office ambition is baked right in. Must you crawl before you walk in the business world? Sure, if you want to be the oldest senior vice president in play group.
The Boss Baby, the latest animated feature from DreamWorks Animation SKG, directed by Tom McGrath (Madagascar), is told from the perspective of Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi), an imaginative 7-year-old and delightfully unreliable narrator. Sizing up the motivations of a new sibling (Alec Baldwin) who arrives one day by taxi, Tim sees him as a pint-size corporate raider, staging a hostile takeover of the household, which is bound to involve serious top-down restructuring and the reallocation of parental love and attention. As the baby later confirms to Tim with the cool ruthlessness of any chief executive officer justifying downsizing: “The numbers just don’t add up.”
But Boss Baby—who’s never given a name because, well, you don’t call your boss by his first name—eventually reveals a more complex goal: He’s a spy dispatched from Baby Corp., a heavenlike place where tots are produced via assembly line (an innocent if oddly clerical alternative to “when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much …”) and, if they’re lucky, given cushy desk jobs. His mission is to thwart Baby Corp.’s chief rival, Puppy Co., and its leader, Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi), before the unveiling of the Forever Puppy, a dog that never gets bigger. “We all laughed at the shar-pei,” warns Boss Baby in a presentation to neighborhood children. “And now it’s No. 1 in China.” Once Tim discovers his little brother’s activities, the two join forces to break into Puppy Co. headquarters, steal the top-secret plans, and, they imagine, fulfill their dreams—for the younger, a glorious return to the home office, complete with a promotion and perks (a private potty), and for the elder, the recovery of only-child status. It’s a classic win-win scenario, straight out of the HR binder.
Got all that? You probably do; it’s a cartoon, after all. For parents, the critical measure of any animated feature is 1) Will this keep my child entertained for 90 minutes? and 2) When we inevitably purchase the DVD, will my head explode on the 112th viewing? The answers are, respectively, yes and no—the precocious baby trope is a hit with kids and adults alike. Baldwin’s predictably on-point portrayal borrows a lot from Jack Donaghy (Baldwin’s character from the late, great 30 Rock) and is vaguely reminiscent of another petulant man-child he’s recently embodied on Saturday Night Live. There’s even an allusion to Baldwin’s iconic role in Glengarry Glen Ross: Although I’d seen it in the trailer, I chuckled when Boss Baby barked at a hungry infant underling, “Put. That. Cookie. Down. Cookies are for closers.” The 5-year-old next to me was stone-faced, however. Not a Mamet fan, I guess.
For the ambitious and business-minded, there might even be leadership lessons to glean from The Boss Baby: the importance of delegation, cooperation, teamwork, and motivation. (“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right,” Boss Baby instructs Tim in a surprisingly effective bike-riding pep talk.) And of course, there’s a heartwarming moral in the middle of this cold corporate wasteland: Work-life balance is essential, and family is ultimately more valuable than professional success. It seems DreamWorks knows as well as Baby Corp. what small and cute can do for the bottom line. As a satisfying distraction for both young professionals and really, really young professionals, The Boss Baby more than manages.