The best idea for a new-parent gift I’ve ever seen is a cross stitch pattern for a cheery little greeting to hang over the new baby’s crib: Welcome, Tiny Overlord.
That’s basically the concept behind The Boss Baby, which, despite its marketing, is not a movie about a baby who is the boss of a company — it’s more of a fantastical riff on babies’ tendency to take over their parents’ lives, filtered through the overactive imagination of the kiddo’s big brother, Tim. Tim hasn’t exactly warmed to the new family addition, having realized how much attention the baby steals away from him.
The result, alas, is pretty clever, but not terribly funny. Its concept is entertaining, but The Boss Baby doesn’t totally deliver on that potential for surrealist baby humor. Loosely based on Martha Frazee’s 2010 board book by the same name, the film is pleasant enough; it even boasts some truly interesting visuals and solid casting choices. But ultimately, it’s forgettable.
The Boss Baby is a surreal story set mostly in its 7-year-old protagonist’s imagination
In its very first sequence, The Boss Baby swiftly builds a whole mythology around where babies come from — a company in the sky called Baby Co., where new infants are produced on an assembly line and diapered/powdered/fed before they’re dropped through a chute to their new family. The company’s quality controls dictate that babies who don’t seem to have the cooing temperament that people expect from their infants are funneled into middle management at Baby Co., where they languish in desk farms and drink formula that keeps them babies forever.
Meanwhile, down on terra firma, Tim (voiced as a kid by Miles Bakshi and as an adult by Tobey Maguire) has lived a perfect, blissful life as the apple of his parents’ eye for seven years. The family lives in a nice house with a backyard, and they frequently go on “adventures” that are magnified in Tim’s imagination: baths become deep-sea dives, and everyday bike rides are death-defying feats. Tim’s parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) both work hard at Puppy Co., but in the evenings they read stories and sing songs to Tim before bed. It’s a good life.
Then one day, Tim gets a baby brother. The baby arrives by taxi; he wears a suit and shades, carries a briefcase, and has soon commandeered Mom and Dad’s attention. Much to Tim’s chagrin, no one else seems to think there’s something weird going on.
And things get even weirder when the baby starts telling Tim why he’s arrived. He’s actually Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin), a middle management up-and-comer with aspirations to rise to the top of Baby Co. He’s joined Tim’s family temporarily because he’s on a mission that came straight from corporate — to save the baby market from extinction.
It turns out that Tim’s parents’ employer, Puppy Co., has come up with a new product that’s even cuter than babies, threatening to steal the hearts of parents and wipe out demand for babies entirely. The only way to keep the baby market alive — and for Tim to get rid of this horrible little brother, who can return to Baby Co. once the mission is accomplished — is for the two siblings to work together to foil Puppy Co.’s plans. Naturally, this endeavor proves much more complicated than anyone thought.
The film plays with animation styles and visual interest to evoke cross-generational nostalgia
The Boss Baby’s story never really adds up to much — it’s a surprisingly thin plot that lacks enough complexity to make you care about what initially seems to be its central “mystery”: the source of the rivalry between Baby Co. and Puppy Co. The weirdness of a baby in a suit overshadows that plot point entirely, making the story feel like little more than an excuse to let Boss Baby make poop jokes.
But the movie still has two things going for it. The first is its wry, deft visual callbacks to older styles of animation, mainly from the 1960s. The references range from the subtly washed-out coloration of the main animation to interludes that recall the work of mid-century cartoonists like Cliff Roberts, Eyvind Earle, and Saul Bass.
That’s in keeping with other visual choices aimed at evoking the same time period, most notably the presence of all kinds of children’s toys that generations of kids will remember, like the classic Fisher Price chatter telephone (first sold in 1962) and Rock-a-Stack (which debuted in 1960). The game Mouse Trap (1963) makes an appearance. The movie’s background is littered with playthings whose appeal has spanned multiple generations, and seeing those classics rendered in animation that samples liberally from other eras creates a comforting sense of whimsy and nostalgia. Visually, The Boss Baby feels like a wink at the animation junkies in the audience.
The Boss Baby is not about Donald Trump, at least not specifically
The movie’s other great advantage is in the casting of Baldwin — which, it must be made clear, happened before he began his stint as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. Baldwin’s voice is preposterously out of sync with a fat little infant, which is the funniest thing about The Boss Baby by a long shot.
But it’s not just the incongruity that’s funny; it’s the characters and associations that Baldwin’s distinctive voice instantly brings to Boss Baby’s persona. “Cookies are for closers” — a direct reference to Baldwin’s character Blake from 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross — is both a line from The Boss Baby and one of its marketing taglines. Then, of course, there’s Boss Baby’s shared DNA with 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, one of television’s most iconic corporate figureheads. The brusqueness and world-wise manner of both of these characters (and Donaghy’s occasional fragility) maps perfectly onto Boss Baby’s whole demeanor, constructing his character for us as soon as he opens his mouth.
And that’s before you consider the inescapable specter of Trump, who Baldwin started playing on SNL in October of 2016. The trailer for Boss Baby dropped two weeks later, and both the film’s marketing team and entertainment journalists have been happy to play up the supposed connections between the two.
Are there any actual connections, though? Sure, I guess. We glimpse Boss Baby playing golf in his room as Tim works on the pair’s plans to thwart Puppy Co.’s scheme; “I’m very busy delegating,” he declares. Later, upon being encouraged to smile for a camera, Boss Baby says, “It makes me feel weak.” (Trump staffers recently told the New York Times that “as a presidential candidate, he wanted to look dour, and vetoed any campaign imagery that so much as hinted at weakness.”)
Boss Baby eventually earns a prize for his accomplishments — a golden toilet in a skyscraper — and there’s a quick shot in which jubilant babies spray him with milk (which is reasonable, considering they’re babies). He’s a kind of petulant careerist who’s obsessed with making sure his photo hangs on Baby Co.’s wall of greats.
But all of these elements could have easily appeared in a version of The Boss Baby produced in a Trump-free parallel universe, and they would have signaled the same type of character: someone who’s relentlessly arrogant, obsessed with position, and struggling to make human connections. That guy has existed throughout human history; most people have worked for him or dated him at some point.
So if The Boss Baby is making a statement about Trump, it’s mainly that the president belongs to a long line of self-obsessed megalomaniacs climbing the tallest ladders they can find, and acting like babies if they run into trouble. Wrap that theme in a simple story about a little boy’s imagination and parents’ expansive love, and The Boss Baby is the result. It’s not biting satire, but it lands a few soft punches along the way to closing the deal.
Boss Baby opens in theaters on March 31.