The Boss Baby, an animated Dreamworks feature about a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying infant engaged in corporate skullduggery, can’t help but mock the sorts of managers who frame and hang their MBAs. The source material, a picture book by author and illustrator Marla Frazee, guaranteed that much. And though the film is liberal in its treatment of the source text, it fundamentally cannot avoid — and doesn’t really try to avoid — making light of overprivileged, underwhelming white male leadership. It’s no wonder that Alec Baldwin, part-time president and former 30 Rock honcho, was cast as the lead. It is, however, a coincidence that the film looks (if you squint at it just a bit) like a very expensive and demographically ill-advised political caricature.
Because Frazee never dreamed the character she doodled after a friend compared her own real life boss to a baby would become a feature film, she finds the political stuff doubly amusing.“I did not, in a million years think that,” she laughs. But she also doesn’t deny wanting to mock a specific sort of successful, self-involved white guy. The book is hardly an activist pamphlet, but it’s not totally innocuous either. Developmental stages be damned, the baby has some teeth.
The LA native and mother of three boys spoke to Fatherly about how she embraced and played off existing stereotypes and how the film built on her idea ended up surprising her.
The baby is a baby. But he’s also a white male baby with a very white male voice. Was that always core to your idea?
I’ve been very aware and hopeful to portray as much diversity as I can in my books. I really hope that any child living in our country can find some sort of approximation of their own life and situation in the illustrations. I’ve used that as a guideline over the years. But with this character, it was so obviously a white stereotypical boss to me. I really had to ask myself why was that funnier. What made that a funnier character? And sometimes those stereotypes are difficult to untangle.
When I started this entire process in 2008 there weren’t enough examples in government, business or just personal day-to-day experience of female bosses like that, but now there are these archetypical female bosses coming in and replacing the patriarchy…. When I wrote the sequel, The Bossier Baby, it was about a girl who fires the Boss Baby and becomes the CEO of the company. She arrives in pearls and a black-suited onesie.
Realistically, you couldn’t have expected your book to feel as relevant as it does right now. The country is divided largely on the issue of whether or not successful white dudes are inherently trustworthy or impressive. And here’s this baby. Is this weird for you?
It’s uncanny. I did not, in a million years, think it would be topical. President Trump is not exactly what I think more than half the country would have wanted to have happened.
But this wasn’t some sort of hyper-prescient protest?
I was playing off that archetype not really making a political statement.
Given that, what inspired you to create the character other than, you know, being aware that there are a lot of kind of goofy management types?
For me thinking about it, it made it easier to deal with if I thought of it more as a throwback to a TV from my youth. So I was thinking The Dick Van Dyke Show, Father Knows Best, and those old black-and-white TV shows from the middle 1960s. That’s why the book has that mid-century, modern vibe. And the one thing that’s still there with the book and it’s on the title page, it says, “Starring The Boss Baby as Himself.” I felt like it gave it an emotional real life. There’s a ridiculousness about the blustery person in this role of power who is sometimes vulnerable. That helped me get a distance from it.
The movie plot is much different than the book’s story. In the book, the baby bosses around his parents. In the film, the baby attempts to dethrone Puppy Co. with his older brother. Did you have any input in the film’s script?
The film is very different in many ways from the book. A picture book in many ways is a pretty direct point-A-to-point-B experience. Generally, a 32-page narrative arc is short. So I knew going in, that if it’s going to be a feature film, then it would certainly be different than the book. They definitely cared about what I thought because they were caring. They were very much looping me in, but no I had no creative control or anything like that over the course of the film, and I didn’t expect to. That was not part of the deal. So truly I’ve been watching this happen and marveling at it. I felt like the parent in the stands watching what’s going on in the game.
Were there any moments in the film that really surprised you or stuck out?
In the film, there’s a series of boss babies over the course of the history of this company and one in particular, looked like a caricature of our President. But it’s not. It was done long before the election. I asked specifically about that one baby because I thought, ‘They must have gone in and changed him.”
They were like, “Nope. It was like that.”