By all accounts, Tom McGrath’s The Boss Baby is a bizarre film. It imagines that the horror of displacement from the center of one’s family is analogous to corporate takeover (with new babies churned along on a conveyor belt, a select few chosen for “upper management”); that capitalism is so entrenched in the way we think and operate it shapes how we view conception; and that the selfishness of babies is comparable to the dispassionate self-interest of the Suits. Still, most poignantly, it dissects not only how we feel about validation, but how we prioritize it. Its recent Academy Award nomination has sparked skepticism, but perhaps its vivacity and emotional acumen make it both deserving of its nod, and one of the best animated films to come down the line in years.
When the arrival of a younger brother (Alec Baldwin as Theodore, though the movie mostly refers to him as the Boss Baby) upends seven-year-old year old Tim Templeton’s (Miles Christopher Bakshi) domestic life—once filled with phantasmagorically imaginative episodes of adventure for only him and his parents—Tim initially sets out on a quest to mark his territory. Unused to the attention not being on him, he butts heads with his new baby sibling, and the two vye for their parents’ (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) attention. The Boss Baby looks like a manager, an uncompromising force all suited up, and the tension between the two reaches a detente when the Boss Baby reveals his identity and his mission: He is an undercover manager from BabyCo (where babies come from!) sent to Earth to recenter love and attention on babies because scientifically manufactured young pet animals have become a threat to the status quo. It is both a comedy of sibling rivalry and a corporate espionage film—The Pelican Brief for kids.
It wouldn’t be inappropriate to compare the Boss Baby to Jack Donaghy (also Alec Baldwin): fairly conservative by nature, driven by a sort of big business efficiency which only makes sense in the context of a world driven by qualitative and measurable success. If Donaghy’s goal was always to be President at NBC, the Boss Baby’s is to become the ultimate Boss Baby. Donaghy’s a baby in a suit, fussy and used to having his demands met at any time, regardless of their ridiculousness. Even if you don’t know who Jack Donaghy is, that is the joke: Older executive types are identically propelled by such a similar kind of selfishness and self-interest that they can, as the film argues, only be delineated by how they use their money. The core of The Boss Baby resembles Donaghy’s emotional arc in the final season of 30 Rock, in that it’s a narrativization of the old adage that “the man who has everything has nothing.”
Jack Donaghy realizes that he’s not actually that happy now that he’s at the top (he is, as Liz Lemon [Tina Fey] says, a man with a nice voice and a drinking problem); the Boss Baby, too, feels an emptiness in a role where power gives him so little joy. The Boss Baby only has a wall of portraits to provide the idea of a reachable goal, and an idol and role model in Super Colossal Big Fat Boss Baby, a former CEO-type of BabyCo. Somewhat alienated from “normal babies” in the title sequence, wherein he doesn’t laugh like the others and is altogether resistant to the prospect of the messiness of toddler and family life, the Boss Baby’s arc continues to reveal that without the job, or the goal of being the next CEO, there’s little else that he has to hold onto. The Boss Baby’s objective is only material in a minimal sense: the corner office and a private potty. The Boss Baby makes an explicit choice to contextualize this desire, in Tim’s imagination or not, as existing within a particular system of hierarchy where people can be forced out not only by other peers in competition, but by products. PuppyCo, both of their parents’ place of employment, is a corporation wherein cuteness is commodified, with the introduction of a new hybrid puppy a tool to monopolize people’s love for children.
PuppyCo’s building has the facsimile of a big red barn, with half a dozen smoke stacks lining the top, implying a larger than life rustic quality, as well as certain more sinister connotations about production (and the smog pumped forth accentuates that idea): It’s a workhouse in which goods are produced and from which goods are sold, but now outsized to fit a modern, hyper-industrial economy. In this world, love is something you buy, not something that is fostered and grows organically between familial units.
There is a surprising amount of emotional potency in the film’s understanding of validation in professional and personal contexts. The Boss Baby’s only conception of what that means is in a professional sense. To be promoted means that he has value, but the strength of the film is his gradual realization that his value is explicitly utilitarian: what he can do for Baby Corp. The film’s villain, Francis Francis (Steve Buscemi), the CEO of PuppyCo, is revealed to be an older, lactose-intolerant Super Colossal Big Fat Boss Baby, since ousted from BabyCo because he no longer had value.
Sweeping camera movements reveal a sea of babies dressed in professional attire, sequestered in cubicles, recalling the eerie homogeneity of The Apartment and A Face in the Crowd. The only thing to distinguish one baby from another is their evaluative success and how they’ve “contributed” to Baby Corp. The sophistication of The Boss Baby’s emotional timbre and trajectory also reminds one of studio era comedies in which corporate success is exposed as ultimately meaningless, where the love of familial or romantic intimacy is the true key to happiness. In one scene, when the Boss Baby has finally been promoted, he looks out of his office view (with the private potty) into the sunset, much more melancholy than expected. Jack Donaghy, too, looks out of his view at 30 Rock, unsure of what to do next. “Is that all there is?” you half expect them to start singing.
In essence, The Boss Baby articulates a simplified version of Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, specifically the alienation of the worker from the act of production, in which the theorist and political revolutionary posits that “labor is external to the worker.” The labor that these upper management babies do is compulsory, repetitive and cog-like, separate from the essentials of their being and living. Even though he makes it to the top of the hierarchy that exists within Baby Corp, the Boss Baby soon realizes that since he experiences such detachment from that labor, he might as well give it up altogether.
There are gendered connotations to this malaise, to be sure. The Boss Baby’s references to corporate culture and allusions to films like David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross frame an affected desire to be monetarily, or overly, successful as a dispassionately masculinist idea, while Tim’s softer, sensitive conception of love and validation fall on the other side of the spectrum. (Though a running joke throughout the movie is how their feminine middle names may or may not undermine their own assertiveness and power.) But the film’s reinforcement of nuclear family ideals ends up somewhat more egalitarian; the masculinist obsession with corporate success turns out, in fact, to be hollow and stultifying. That it can delineate between all these different types of fulfillment with such panache more than makes The Boss Baby worthy of a cookie. And cookies are for closers.