ANNECY — For years, CG animation has driven to emulate reality. Technological standards are now so high, however, that animation can now begin to emulate art, even the squash and stretch comedy of hand-drawn classics.
One result: DreamWorks Animation’s “The Boss Baby,” starring Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow, set for a March 2017 release via 20th Century Fox. Directed by Tom McGrath, helmer of the “Madagascar” movies and “Mastermind,” “Boss Baby” had an Annecy audience in stitches at a June 16 sneak preview which unveiled a clutch of never-seen-before sequences to a privileged audience including Guillermo del Toro.
McGrath’s peformance-led comedy style goes with his territory. He watched “Bugs Bunny” with his dad on Saturday mornings. “I laughed at the slapstick, my father at the dialogue,” he recalled, presenting “The Boss Baby” to an Annecy Fest audience. He graduated from the character animation program at Cal Arts. At the time, the old Disney animators, such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, as well as Chuck Jones, were still teaching there.
“Now we’re kind of going back to our roots in animation and looking to the past to move forward,” McGrath said. “‘Boss Baby’ is very much a cartoony sensibility. There’s a lot of squash and stretch. In “Madagascar,” while many animators on other films were emulating live action, pushing for realistic lighting and textures, “we really wanted to do something cartoony, but the technology wasn’t quite there. Rigs broke if squished too much.
“But as we progressed the technology got better, and what was a lost art became hip again, McGrath added, citing Genndy “Hotel Transylvania” and Doug Sweetland’s “Presto.
”’Boss Baby’ is the first film where I could capture things that 2D was able to capture sixty years ago,” he enthused.
That was seen in the sequences McGrath unveiled at Annecy. Written by Michael McCullers, “Boss Baby” is narrated from the POV and imagination of a seven-year-old kid, Tim, who gets a baby brother.
In a first sequence shown at Annecy, which McGrath screened to whoops of applause, Tim happens upon baby brother in his cradle, in a executive suit, talking by phone. “I know how important this mission is. You’ve got the right man on the job,” the baby is saying by phone, telling Tim straight off when he realises he’s been outed that he’s the boss, not Tim, and there’s only so much love to go round.
Boss Baby has been sent by Baby Corp. to investigate an evil plot of PuppyCo., to put babies out of business in favour of pets. He spouts businessese: “Think outside the box,” “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t — you’re right,” a Henry Ford dictum. When their parents are captured, however, the siblings finally pull together.
“The theme of the movie, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler, is that there’s plenty of love to go round and it’s not about getting love but giving love,” McGrath said in Annecy.
Looking back to “The Lady and the Tramp” and “Peter Pan,” backgrounds are more “impressionistic,” in “Boss Baby,” McGrath said. “That means you can focus your eye on where to look.
One example: In one climax sequence, as the young brothers escape from the villain’s brother, Eugene, disguised as a nanny. they do so cycling through a white picket suburb, set against a broad stretch of blue sky and green grass.
One pudgy baby friend, Jimbo, has the body of as mini sumo wrestler. As boss baby and elder bro escape to get to Vegas to save their parents, Eugene running after the babies in frantic pursuit attempting to grab a firetruck with Jimbo in it. But it runs away from him down the road, Eugene’s body stretching in desperation as he tries to hold on.
For McGrath, current animation is rapidly widening its gamut. “As Guillermo del Toro put it in his masterclass yesterday at Annecy, animation is not a genre but a medium. There are a lot of different works: Drama, horror, adult-oriented stuff,” McGrath said.
And there are a lot different looks, he added: “‘Madagascar’ is very different from ‘Dragons’ which is very different from ‘Voltron’ which is very different from ‘Trollhunters.’
If McGrath is right, as in live-action, a future animated movie’s success is likely to depend more and more not on its being the latest offering from a big Hollywood studio but on that movie’s originality.