Trolls wasn’t the only movie that DreamWorks Animation had on display at Annecy 2016. In one of the festival’s rare examples of a major animation studio unveiling some key details about a project that won’t release this year, DreamWorks Animation featured their upcoming 2017 animated comedy The Boss Baby as the centerpiece of a Focus Studio panel last Thursday, hosted by the film’s director Tom McGrath and attended by special guest Guillermo Del Toro (who also had a DWA project of his own at Annecy 2016).
One contested topic that you might hear in some circles of the animation community is CG animation’s drive to imitate reality. The How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Big Hero 6, and even The Good Dinosaur are some major examples of CG-animated movies borrowing extensively from live-action filmmaking and leaning hard on imitation of reality. Yet, as some may argue, that drive has led animation to stray too far from the basic principles that the medium was built on.
But as recent films like Hotel Transylvania 1 and 2 and Inside Out have proved, CG animation is now at a place technologically where it can emulate the style and aesthetics of hand-drawn animation. This was mostly seen as a major positive of another Annecy 2016 presentation, and if Tom McGrath’s comments and the footage shown to attending audiences are any indication, DreamWorks Animation wants to do the same with The Boss Baby.
Indeed, McGrath’s performance-driven comedy style is an extension of that, as he spent much of his Saturday mornings as a kid watching Bugs Bunny shorts with his dad. “I laughed at the slapstick, my father at the dialogue,” He recalled. He also graduated from the character animation program at CalArts, during a time when Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson (two members of Disney’s Nine Old Men team) and Looney Tunes architect Chuck Jones were still teaching there.
From there, McGrath made it a priority of his to have The Boss Baby reflect that cartoon sensibility, complete with ‘squash and stretch’ aesthetics. “Now we’re kind of going back to our roots in animation and looking to the past to move forward,” McGrath said.
According to McGrath, he wanted to replicate this style in the first Madagascar movie, at a point when a lot of animators and artists were moving in the direction of photo-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 the years went on and the technology got better at imitating the classic cartoons, “what was a lost art became hip again,” He added. Unsurprisingly, he cited Genndy Tartakovsky’s work on the Hotel Transylvania films and Doug Sweetland’s short film Presto. (SIDE NOTE: Doug Sweetland is the co-director of Warner Animation Group’s Storks).
”’Boss Baby’ is the first film where I could capture things that 2D was able to capture sixty years ago,” he enthused.
The footage, which debuted to laughs and applause from the attending audience, revealed that the story will be narrated from the perspective of Tim, a seven-year-old kid who has to deal with the arrival of his baby brother (voiced by Alec Baldwin).
The fist sequence features Tim happening upon the baby in his cradle, doing not-so-babyish things like wearing a suit and talking to someone on a phone. “I know how important this mission is. You’ve got the right man on the job,” The baby says, tipping Tim off to the realization that the baby is the new favorite of the family (or ‘the boss’, as it were).
In another sequence, we learn that the Boss Baby was sent by Baby Corp. to investigate a nefarious plot by Puppyco. to put babies out of business in favor of pets. Here, Boss Baby speaks in fittingly business-like terms, even spouting the Henry Ford phrase of “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t — you’re right.”
It’s not until their parents are kidnapped that Tim and Boss Baby have to put their grievances aside and work 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.
Asides from Looney Tunes, McGrath was also inspired by the classic Disney films like Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan, specifically in crafting the fllm’s ‘impressionistic’ backgrounds. This is intentional, as McGrath states: “That means you can focus your eye on where to look.”
An example is a sequence near the film’s third act, where the young brothers escape from the villain’s brother Eugene, disguised as a nanny and cycling through a white picket suburb. The entire scene is set against blue skies and green grass.
Later on, the scene introduces Jimbo, Boss’s pudgy friend who has the body of a sumo wrestler. As Boss Baby and Jim escape to Vegas to save their parents, Eugene attempts to grab onto a firetruck that Jimbo is in. But as the firetruck runs off down the road, Eugene’s body stretches as he tries to hold on in desperation.
After the footage was screened, McGrath made some interesting comments about the current industry. Even as he stressed the throwback feel of Boss Baby, he praised the widening breadth and diversity of genre in the medium of animation. “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, citing the different DWA movies and shows as an example. “‘Madagascar’ is very different from ‘Dragons’ which is very different from ‘Voltron’ which is very different from ‘Trollhunters.’”
He ended the presentation by making an intriguing prediction about the future of the industry where, much like live-action, the success of an animated movie will more likely depend on the quality and originality of the film and not the pedigree of the studio releasing it.
Asides from Baldwin, The Boss Baby will feature the voice talents of Steve Bucemi, Jimmy Kimmel, and Lisa Kudrow. The film is directed by McGrath from a screenplay by Michael McCullers (SNL, Austin Powers) and based on the children’s book by Marla Frazee. The film bows in theaters on March 31, 2017.
What do you think? Are you looking forward to The Boss Baby?