In his 1927 book Understanding Human Nature, the psychotherapist Alfred Adler argued that children’s birth order—their status in their families as a first child, or middle, or youngest—influences, in ways both varied and predictable, the personalities they go on to develop later in life. It’s a notion that, today, is controversial. The controversy has done very little, however, to prevent birth-order theory’s endurance as a mainstay of pop psychology and pop culture. As Parents.com recently put it, “Birth order plays a role in how we do things, which career we choose, and how our relationships play out.”
Did the world need an animated feature film dedicated to the psychological effects of an idea that is nearly a century old? No, very probably it did not. But here, nonetheless, is DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby, which is dedicated both to the existential challenges that confront an older sibling when a new one comes along, and also to the many delights that come from spending time in the company of a suit-wearing, corporate-speaking infant. (Both. Really.)
It goes, roughly, like this: 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi, with a retrospective voiceover from Tobey Maguire) lives in only-child bliss with his parents (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel): They dote on him, devoting their attentions to him. And then, one day, a new family member arrives—yes, the Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) himself. The eponymous infant, brash and full of MBA platitudes, arrives at the Templetons’ home (in a cab, because, as the Boss Baby will repeatedly remind his new brother, he is “no ordinary baby”). He comes as a brand-new item from Baby Corp., a mystical company that mass-manufactures babies, factory-style, churning them out, powdering them, binkying them, and then sending them down chutes to be delivered (get it?) into the world. Most such insta-infants find themselves sliding down a “Family” chute; a handful of them, however, get sorted into a slide reserved for “Management.” They are the ones who go corporate. The Boss Baby is one of them.
This only very partially explains why the Boss Baby comes to the Templetons’ house, to disrupt the idyllic, three’s-company life of Tim and his parents. Another explanation is that the Boss Baby has infiltrated the Templeton family as a matter of corporate espionage: The Templetons both work in marketing for Puppy Co., a sort of Petco-meets-puppy mill, which is in the process of creating something called a Forever Puppy, which is a puppy that, yes, stays a puppy forever. “Throughout history, people have loved babies more than anything—we were number-one!” the Boss Baby explains to Tim. The Forever Puppy, however, with its permadorability, might compromise that. (Or, as Boss Baby puts it, Boss Babyly: “It could put the baby business out of business, baby!”)
So that sort of explains things. But another explanation for the Boss Baby’s presence is that Tim has an extremely active imagination, the kind that might be primed to go on overdrive (it was all just a dream, etc.) when a new sibling comes along to monopolize the parental attention that Tim used to have to himself. And then there’s the other, and perhaps main, thing explaining the general presence of the Boss Baby: It’s very funny to think of infants, adorable and helpless and demanding as they are, as C-suite executives. The boss-meets-baby fusion the movie plays on isn’t merely absurd; it’s also extremely apt. Babies are bosses—every parent knows that—and that is the central joke of a movie that is jam-packed with a dizzying number of them.
The Boss Baby, whose voice Baldwin imbues with a delightfully Donaghyan air of six-sigma swagger, takes the compromises of new parenthood to their delightfully logical conclusion: The Templetons’ new infant wears a slick black suit that features ample room, in its otherwise slim cut, for a diaper. He wears a fancy watch. And sock garters. He carries a briefcase. And he is above all extremely aware of being the Boss. We know this because when Tim asks him, “Who are you?,” the Boss Baby replies, “Let’s just say I’m the boss.” And also because, later on in the film, the Boss Baby declares, “Tim, I may look like a baby, but trust me, I’m all grown up.” And because, later, the Boss Baby further clarifies, “The truth is, I’m no ordinary baby.”
The Boss Baby is based on the illustrated board book from Marla Frazee (a work that, Kirkus wrote, “will appeal to parents, of course, but also to siblings who see a new baby demand so much of mom and dad’s time and energy”). It’s a rich premise, offering a similar kid-movie balance: There’s a little here for the kiddos, definitely, and a little, as well, for the adults.
The problem is that the movie isn’t content with that one malleable notion of siblinghood and its discontents. Instead The Boss Baby layers on the jokes, and the ideas, and the feels. It indulges in chaos. Baldwin’s “no ordinary baby” is desperate to prevent the Forever Puppy from being put on the market, because that’s the only way for him to get promoted to the highest echelons of Baby Corp. This leads a Puppy Co. henchman to chase the Boss Baby and his brother around to try to prevent them from reaching the puppies, which in turn leads the Boss Baby and his brother to Las Vegas (cue the jokes about the unaffordability of flying First Class, and also the jokes about Elvis), where Puppy Co. is announcing the development of the Forever Puppy at a corporate convention. This in turn leads the duo—zig!—to find their parents in Vegas, and in turn infuriates the head of Puppy Co., who turns out to have an unforeseen connection to Baby Corp., and things culminate in everyone doing battle over ... a rocket ship loaded full of puppies. Zag?
Further complicating things is the fact that the Boss Baby has a magic baby formula, provided by Baby Corp., that keeps him suspended in infancy—formula without which, he informs Tim, “I turn into a normal baby.” (Which is also to say, as the Boss Baby makes clear: “I’ll be a pooping time bomb!”)
Think the lack of the magic formula will lead to moments of the lead character cooing and burbling and otherwise emphasizing the Baby in “Boss Baby”? Think the Vegas-set plot line will involve an “Elvis has left the building” joke? You are correct. And the film complicates itself even more by attempting to provide philosophical (yes, philosophical) scaffolding for the story it tells. The Boss Baby repeatedly reiterates his conviction (which is, by the transitive property of Tim’s imagination, actually Tim’s conviction) that love is a zero-sum thing. (Boss Baby, armed with a pie chart to prove it: “There’s only so much love to go around.”) Later, and contra the primary premise of his own film, the Boss Baby argues that “babies aren’t getting as much love as we used to.” Brotherhood, parenthood, generational anxieties, game theory, adorable puppies, sassy babies, unexplained rockets in Vegas—there they all are, jockeying for space amid the (many, many) jokes about the Boss Baby’s primary motivation in all this: to get an office with “my own potty.”
Children’s minds are quick and sometimes chaotic, certainly. In that sense The Boss Baby is offering a whimsical depiction of childhood emotions, in the manner of Inside Out (and, before that, Look Who’s Talking). While you could wonder how a kid whose imagination has previously led him to dream up scenarios involving ninjas and pirates and wizards would know enough about the PowerPointed drudgery of American corporate life to imagine up a Boss Baby in the first place, you are not meant to ask such a question. Nor are you meant to ask how, in a world that has already given us Toy Story and Finding Dory and Storks and Stewie Griffin and, indeed, Jack Donaghy, The Boss Baby hoped to distinguish itself.
You are meant instead simply to be delighted by the heart-warming story of reluctant brotherhood and Boss-wearing babies. And there is something heart-warming about it, in the end. But this is also a movie about factory-produced babies that reads, itself, as factory-produced. The corporate underpinnings that make movies what they are—the studio meetings, the make-something-for-everyone impulses, the tenuous balance of artistry and capitalism—are all too evident here. As in the Boss Baby’s corporate-conforming suit, the seams show. While The Boss Baby may have its laughs (it’s a baby in a suit, so), it loses itself in trying to do so much, and to be so much more than its premise gives it any right to be. There are few things less whimsical, after all, than whimsy-by-committee.