There is, packaged cheekily in its subtitle, an obvious double meaning in The Boss Baby: Family Business. There is the “family business” as it concerns work (and often ownership) passed down generationally, and there is “family business”, as in matters and topics and relationships within the context of the nuclear unit. There’s a third meaning that can be extracted from this, a remnant of its predecessor’s smarter, sharper scalpel-like examination of family and capitalism, which is to say that The Boss Baby was frank and smirking in its conception of the familial and nuclear unit as being analogous to some kind of profession or career to be managed.
These three definitions or interpretations of the phrase sprawl themselves out across the film, Tom McGrath’s second go at the franchise (there is an animated television show, which I have not seen). As suggested by its subtitle’s play on words, McGrath and screenwriter Michael McCullers’ attentions are divided, its myriad of interests, adorations, resentments, and fears, as focused as a five-year-old double fisting Pixie Stix. It rolls around a playpen of subjects — fraternal estrangement, questions of what masculine success is or looks like, fatherhood as labor, father as storyteller, a critique of startup-ification of schooling — throwing its brief fixations at the wall like Playdoh.
The foundation of The Boss Baby: Family Business starts in an emotionally satisfying place, in the sense that it begins with disappointment, a dose of reality that films made for children are seldom afforded. Tim (James Marsden) is an adult with a family of his own: he has a wife Carol (Eva Longoria) and two daughters, 7-year-old Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and baby Tina (Amy Sedaris). He and his older daughter are growing apart, Tabitha uncertain of her continually imaginative father’s behavior as well as her own place in the world. That’s not necessarily a novel plot for a children’s film, nor is its component of Tim therefore feeling like a failure as a father (see: Hook), but this dynamic is compounded by family estrangement. He and Ted, aka Boss Baby (Alex Baldwin), are no longer really on speaking terms, Ted dropping in presents to satiate his nieces and dropping out of his relationship with his older brother. Nor is family estrangement exactly a unique premise for a movie. But it’s the combination of the two, and the generic context, that suggests something intriguing about the recapitulation of, if not trauma [groans], then at least a sense of loss and erosion of power. In essence, The Boss Baby: Family Business starts where the lessons of the previous film weren’t learned, where the cute moral story didn’t stick, and where real life got in the way. Ted became rich and self-entitled, like he was in his past BabyCorp life, and Tim never adjusted to the idea that, even though they’re family, that people are subject to their own desires and whims, even at the cost of what society considers essential relationships.
This premise isn’t so bad, and there’s the suggestion of real honesty, the snaking anxiety of loss and dissatisfaction sliding into a life that one thinks that one has figured out, only to see it reiterating that brokenness. It’ll never be a Tracy Letts play or anything, it’ll never unearth the Freudian psychosexual turmoil of even a Spielberg movie, but The Boss Baby: Family Business sets something up intriguing that breaks its promise like its characters, and perhaps that’s by design.
The rest of the film steamrolls through plot points: Tina is from BabyCorp, the intense prep school Tabitha is going to is plotting to turn children against their parents, it’s run by a weirdo charmer of a headmaster (Jeff Goldblum), this continues to threaten Tim’s relationship with Tabitha, Tina calls for both Ted and Tim to take the mission, they transform into their younger selves to infiltrate the school, Tim notices that Tabitha is an academic star, yet somewhat a social outcast and befriends her, et cetera, et cetera.
It is part Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business and part Back to the Future, however, it’s only the former template that sustains a thematic depth: how do Tim and Ted’s conceptions of what makes a man successful change when forced to reexamine their latent understanding of what masculinity even is? How is that impacted as their own fraternal relationship vacillates between workable and corrosive? What remains of Back to the Future in this film is a typically weird Electra complex element, which is only best used in a musical sequence that gives Marsden an opportunity to croon against McGrath’s vivid visualization. To its credit, primarily follows in its predecessor’s footsteps in its disinclination to aspire towards animated verisimilitude, unlike many of its contemporaries. The Boss Baby: Family Business is often strongest when articulating the limitlessness of how imagination and anxiety can be illustrated and aesticized, unanchored to the “real world”’s finicky grab at detail and reality. The film has an aesthetic and emotional perspective that complement one another, even if its commitment to the ideas it wants to explore is inconsistent.
It’s unclear if this is explicit reference, though McGrath nonetheless seems to be a student of Howard Hawks: his interrogations into gender, his rapid-fire dialogue with buoyant camera movement, but perhaps most of all his ability to connect class with farce, underpinning it with an earnestness that attempts to avoid the maudlin. While Family Business is both too sporadic and too locked into its young adult demo, its original configuration of the nuclear unit as some kind of manageable system of labor and production was, in the first film, a target to put on the wall and throw knives at. That isn’t how to live one’s life, in such a detached, productivity-oriented way; the image of a “boss baby” was ironic, a way of pointing out an emerging flaw in family structures. The success of The Boss Baby was predicated not only on its gonzo, Chuck Jonesian animation, but a clear-eyed desire to reconsider what validation meant in a relationship structure that has been increasingly morphed by automation and technology. The Boss Baby is sad, is what I am saying, a compact children’s version of the last season of 30 Rock, acknowledging that pursuit of success in a capitalist system will ultimately lead to emptiness. That’s present here, too, though it’s obscured by its litany of plots. There’s nice ribbing of how corporate culture has tried to subsume the language of care, and that blurred way of navigating family relationships and professional contexts is amusingly dark.
I think, though, The Boss Baby: Family Business’s greatest preoccupation, and it shares this with Hawks, is with the painful lack of control we have on our familial relationships, and how that control is increasingly wrenched from us as time lurches on. If our family is baseline functional, we’re promised that intimacy and functionality “for life”, that it’s cultivated for forever, without realizing the internal or external factors that problematize or challenge that intimacy. That familial closeness in fact has an expiration date that’s illegible to us until it goes bad. It isn’t really a spoiler to say that things turn out okay for everyone, but right before it ends, there’s the gesture towards a harder film, one for an older audience, that is more explicitly about the promises that are broken by family, the unattainable myth of familial perfection, and the paths that those actions send us on. It gestures towards as much: a father who won’t grow up as his daughter does, a rich but isolated businessman whose connections are only ever transactional, and the decades-old fissure in their relationship that made them this way. In this more difficult, more candid film, would time heal those wounds? Or would their festering sore result in intimate gangrene? Time dilates estrangement in its pain and disappointment and hopelessness. Not here, though, in this fantasy. But maybe someday they’ll circle back on that.