It’s tough to call my complete disinterest in The Boss Baby as a “judging a book by its cover” scenario when that cover is what the studio sold, but I won’t lie and say babies doing Glengarry Glen Ross wasn’t what turned me off from it. Watching every new marketing piece play into that juxtaposition as though it wasn’t a creatively bankrupt idea was simply too much to bear. So I avoided Tom McGrath‘s latest—despite believing his Madagascar series had finally come into its own by part three—and went on with my life sans regret. If not for a sequel finding its way to my desk in the coming days, I would have continued living that blissful existence without ever feeling as though I missed out.
To therefore watch it now and witness that it does possess enough heart to overcome that schtick (whether Marla Frazee‘s source material or Michael McCullers‘ adaptation leaned that way first, casting Alec Baldwin in the titular role was an intentional choice to augment the parallel) proved a welcome surprise. Because beyond the premise—itself an intriguing double fantasy angle wherein we can’t quite be sure seven-year-old Tim (Miles Bakshi) isn’t imagining his new brother’s managerial aspirations like all the rest of his outlandish adventures—The Boss Baby is truly about what it means to open your heart as a young child to a sibling. One moment you’re your parents’ (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow‘s Dad and Mom) entire world and the next you’re forgotten amidst the ensuing chaos.
How funny too is the fact that Boss Baby’s “underlings” (David Soren‘s Jimbo, ViviAnn Yee‘s Staci, and Eric Bell Jr.‘s “yes-men” triplets) earn about five-to-ten minutes of total screen time despite hogging so much advertising space. The Glengarry Glen Ross gag is but one extended joke amongst many with the tenuous dynamic between Baby and Tim taking over as the story’s main thrust. That the latter proves itself to be steeped in a rather robust mythology rendering that “board meeting” inconsequential is thus icing on the cake because we’re now able to enjoy the proceedings with earned investment. Unless Baby and Tim work together towards a common goal (taking down Steve Buscemi‘s Francis Francis, Puppy Co.’s owner and Mom and Dad’s employer), a happy ending won’t be possible.
What is that happily ever after? Going their separate ways. Tim is a kid who enjoyed his parents’ undivided attention. Baby is ostensibly a grown man sent on a mission to infiltrate the Templeton family and discover what Francis Francis is doing to make the world care more about puppies than babies. Being brothers isn’t therefore in either of their interests and the only way to rid themselves of the potential that they’ll be stuck as brothers is for Baby to succeed. The rub is obviously that working together towards that goal inevitably breaks through the vitriol they have for one another until any potential parting starts to feel sad instead of joyous. Only by loving each other can they reacquire the freedom they may not want anymore.
It’s a simple premise that the filmmakers are happy to wield at breakneck speed to hide how little is involved. There’s a bit of exposition, Tim discovers Baby’s secret, they battle, team-up, and ultimately face their mutual adversary. Strip things down to their core and The Boss Baby is pretty much Toy Story with Tim in the Woody role and Baby in the Buzz role. They strive to return to their respective status quos until their union grows stronger than their independence. But it’s also Toy Story without the pathos of self-discovery by lifting the curtain on fantasy. That’s the casualty of making Baby’s persona “real” rather than a flight of fancy (even though that wall is also awkwardly broken whenever we’re provided the adults’ unique vantage point).
Things are going so fast, though, that it’s easy to ignore these incongruities and be swept up by the action. Blurring the line between fact and fiction in ways that force us to question everything even when the film is screaming at us to not question that is frustrating nonetheless, but it’s a children’s movie leveraging excitement above rationality. We’re not supposed to dissect the conflicting layers of imagination. We’re supposed to laugh at the sight gags created by the conflict and move on. Baby explaining his elaborate origins with magic pacifiers and drug-laced formula is both a means to entertain and enlighten even if those purposes contradict each other. As long as these two “brothers” let themselves be vulnerable enough to become brothers, nothing else really matters.
And to that end the film is a resounding success. The ways in which Tim and Baby interact and grow earns some heartfelt moments that should get some eyes watering. That’s what happens when you put a boy who never learned how to share his love with a baby who never knew what it meant to be loved. Tim starts loving Baby and Baby feels that love to start reciprocating it. They’ll have to ignore their pride long enough to help the other so that their camaraderie will birth a sense of respect that just might bubble over into admiration. They’ll find out that it’s only through their kinship that they got what they wanted and only through that victory that they’ll realize their brotherhood was more important.