On familial jealousies, the eternally ruthless struggle for power, and the bold modernization of William Shakespeare's most infamous creation
The Boss Baby 20th Century Fox
Director: Tom McGrath
Screenplay: Michael McCullers, based on the book by Marla Frazee
Starring: The voices of Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow and Tobey Maguire
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes / 2.35:1
March 31, 2017
(out of four)
When we hear the anguished wails of infantile ambition reverberating through the corridors of power, echoing off castle walls, we know this can only mean one thing: We are once again in the presence of literature's most notorious monarch.
Tackling any adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Boss Baby is an ambitious endeavor, and the latest attempt - an animated version from director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers - is no exception. Shakespeare's legendary tale of power, jealousy, betrayal and callow hubris has captured the imaginations of filmmakers since the earliest days of the medium, though few have been able to wrangle its ideological and metatextual complexities into a coherent whole. Many have tried, dating back to the earliest known feature-length attempt, Victor Sjöström's long-lost silent version, Our Cherubic Despot: A Song of Blood and Sorrow. More recent generations have given us the freewheeling, dreamlike experimentation of Jacques Rivette's L'enfant Patron de Shakespeare, as well as the more traditional rendition brought to life by director/writer/star Kenneth Branagh in 1988.
But while those two versions combined for nearly nine hours, McGrath's William Shakespeare's The Boss Baby clocks in at a brisk 97 minutes, dramatically paring down the narrative - among other significant liberties taken, not the least of which is the transplanting of the story from its original 14th Century France to contemporary American suburbia. In the spirit of Almereyda and Taymor, McGrath has gone in a boldly modernized direction, recontextualizing the play's central power dynamics in a global corporate milieu - deliberately drawing direct connections between the feudalism of the Late Middle Ages and the neo-plutocracies of the 21st Century.
As we all know, William Shakespeare's The Boss Baby is widely acknowledged to be a thinly veiled satire of the reign of John I of France, who inherited the throne upon his birth in 1316 and ruled for five days before being hilariously assassinated by a resentful uncle. Though Shakespeare never mentions the character by name - characters refer to him only as Boss Baby - the famed playwright was known to be a harsh and vocal critic of John I, citing his failure to stabilize the region during his regime (particularly his inability to quell the burgeoning volatility in Flanders) as well as his general shortcomings as a leader. Believed to have been written in 1598, the Bard's opus began as a barbed insult to the infant king, but metamorphosed into a sprawling self-reflexive study of the fragilities of inherited power. While his tragedies often dramatized the ruthless pursuit of power, this one instead examined desperate preservation of a power already bestowed. The Boss Baby himself was a congenital tyrant fighting only to retain, against all enemies, the only position in life he had ever known.
Over the centuries, scholars have been enthralled with the play's intricacies, have puzzled over its contradictions. Modern academics have even noted that it reads today as an unexpectedly timely work, in its savage commentary on familiar forms of oligarchy and even in the finer details of its faux-historical settings. The world Shakespeare created in The Boss Baby was a grotesque, farcical embellishment of 14th Century European style, envisioning a style of dress that, based on its descriptions in the original folio, seems to anticipate a variation of what we might recognize as modern businesswear - a deliberate absurdity in its day that makes the play's accomplishments feel all the more prescient today.
Of course, the character's brief reign - his immediate ascendancy and expeditious fall - provides the main thrust of the text, and he remains its greatest source of innovation. While the real-life John I's oratorical skill left much to be desired, Shakespeare - in one of his most bitter satirical masterstrokes - portrayed the infant king as a much more verbose authoritarian, his very words drawing explicit attention to his failed policies and philosophical illiteracy. The eloquence of Boss Baby's rhetoric was legend, but unknowingly self-defeating.
But back to the topic at hand: McGrath's interpretation begins with a few additional, significant updates: First, he has reimagined the play's antagonist - the bitter uncle who poisons Boss Baby to death - as a brother, seemingly an attempt to deepen the level of intimacy between the two characters and thus punctuate the climactic betrayal. Here, the brother named Tim sees himself as the rightful heir, inexplicably passed over. One of McGrath's other changes takes this one step further - the decision to tell the story from Tim's point of view, presumably making us more complicit in Tim's elaborate backdoor scheming against his wrongly coronated younger brother.
And yet it's that very choice that lays the groundwork for one of the film's major missteps, as a sentimental streak sets in, stripping the narrative of its comic boldness and opting instead for an inexorable path toward reconciliation and even political alliance. Tim is instantly jealous when Boss Baby is first brought home by their parents and instantly given dominion over the entire household, yet his attitude toward the fast-talking, latte-loving tyrant softens when he discovers that Boss Baby has noble intentions, seeking only to reinforce the dominance of human babies in a long-standing culture war against puppies. This partnership between the two brothers, which eventually pits them against a corporate empire hellbent on the destruction of Boss Baby's domain, eventually leads to the film's most substantial alteration of the text.
Naturally, it concerns the death of Boss Baby. Let's just say that McGrath and McCullers have different attitudes about it than their predecessors. Shakespeare self-consciously presented Boss Baby's death as a fait accompli; it is what haunts him, what drives the naked ambition of his struggle, the destiny he lives to defy. In the play, the pivotal act of murder is staged with calm surrender, as if each player is simply acting out a future foretold, an event already written, a moment already etched in the inescapable permanence of history. Like an infant Macbeth, Boss Baby's inevitable fate finally catches up with him.
But in a choice sure to spark controversy among purists, this Boss Baby adaptation alters the ending - both in action and in meaning. McGrath utilizes the principle of death - of consciousness, of identity, of memory - without actually embracing the violent ends of the original tale. We meet Boss Baby at the height of his power and then witness as he faces the threat of regressing to a more primitive infant state due to a lack of magic baby formula. A tragic fate, to be sure - but one that many would argue lacks the emotional force of the traditional ending. In other areas, McGrath and McCullers are truer to the text, at least to the extent that their modernization allows. The famous Act V pilgrimage to the desert - where Boss Baby makes his last stand against would-be usurpers to his throne - is translated here as an excursion to Las Vegas, with a horde of Elvis impersonators filling in for the French minstrels that Boss Baby famously kept around him at all times in his final hours.
A role like this one is always in high demand and attracts elite talent, and indeed McGrath originally intended this part to go to noted Shakespearean Kevin Spacey. However, Spacey was unable to accept, owing to his prior commitment to William Shakespeare's Nine Lives, which was released to great fanfare late last summer. In Spacey's absence, Alec Baldwin took over, bringing an entirely different persona to the character - muscular authority replacing sneering venom.
But despite Baldwin's able presence, McGrath's adaptation never fires on all cylinders - never finds the right balance to reconcile the high-minded ambitions with the potty humor so vital to the original text. William Shakespeare's The Boss Baby is always a challenging enterprise; few can live up to its legacy. This one, like so many before it, is simply a victim of its own ambition.