“The Boss Baby” hit theaters late last month and surged to the top of box-office charts soon after. Not only has the animated film about a particularly high-handed infant dominated ticket sales, it’s managed to wiggle its way into headlines the way most news does these days: by relating to President Donald Trump.
“Is ‘The Boss Baby’ Really a Cartoon About an Infant Donald Trump?” Vanity Fair asked. “The latest DreamWorks animation is the first movie to nod to Donald Trump’s childish antics,” The Guardian proclaimed. The parallel was clear. Critics couldn’t help themselves from comparing a dictatorial baby, serendipitously voiced by Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, to our current commander in chief.
The story of an imperious, suit-wearing baby, who in the film seems to abhor happiness in the form of adorable puppies, actually began with Marla Frazee, the children’s book author who wrote and illustrated Boss Baby in 2010. What began with a sketch long hanging in her studio, based on a conversation she’d had about a friend’s problematic boss, morphed into a light-hearted picture book that, seven years later, is capturing the hearts of Trump dissenters.
Well, in an interview with The Huffington Post over the phone on Thursday, Frazee admitted the comparisons make a lot of sense:
When did you learn that DreamWorks wanted to turn The Boss Baby into a movie?
Right before Boss Baby was released in the fall of 2010, my agent Steve Malk received word from Damon Ross, who works at DreamWorks animation. Damon had seen the book and was interested in optioning it for a possible feature-length animated movie, which was incredibly exciting. Although it was tempered by what I knew, which was that many books are optioned and they never actually get made into movies. So I was cautiously excited, I guess.
What has your reaction to the film been like?
Oh, it’s just unbelievable. I was lucky enough to see the film in certain phases of its process over all these years, because DreamWorks has been very generous in inviting me to the studio to see things at various points. I saw it finished finished at the wrap party probably two weeks before it was released. I was just so blown away. The difference between it being almost finished to being finished was huge. It just came together in a way that was so much tighter, with the music. Things that I don’t really know how to describe, they offered a completely different experience than what I had seen before. I think it’s just been exciting, start to finish.
Did you ever imagine, while writing the book, that it would one day become the No. 1 film at the box office?
No. [Laughs] Not to put too fine a point on it, but no. I could not have imagined that. And not only that, but the synchronicity of the fact that, you know, where we are in terms of politics. We have the “Boss Baby” character being voiced by Alec Baldwin, who is impersonating Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” And Trump being in the Oval Office, acting like, many people think, the Boss Baby. So, it’s just a circular, incredible thing that’s not something that was planned.
Were you at all surprised by these comparisons between Boss Baby and Trump? Does it make sense to you?
In a strange way, yes, it does make sense to me. Saying that, it was completely surprising. Absolutely surprising. Part of what makes sense to me is that ― and I’ve thought about this quite a bit ― when I was writing the book and sort of envisioning this character, I thought of the Boss Baby character as a white, stereotypical male boss. Mainly because it was funnier. I couldn’t understand why it was funnier, but it was.
That’s the thing about stereotypes, they’re kind of hard to untangle. In order to riff on them, there has to be some sort of buy-in, that this is an absurd character. For me, when I was thinking about the book, I was reflecting on the sitcoms or TV shows of the ‘60s ― whether it was “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “Father Knows Best.” I sort of set the book, in my head, not only in that time period but in that fictional TV world. And so when I first started doing the sketches, I had the book cover looking like a vintage TV screen, and I had Boss Baby walking into his house for the first time with a TV jingle kind of going on. There was a sort of artifice about the world it was set in.
For what we’re kind of living through now, the sense of what’s happening in the White House, there’s a lot of similarities there ― with the artifice of it. When Alec Baldwin started to be all over the place with his impression of Trump, it did seem like there were going to be all these connections that would be made. And they have been.
I believe it was Vulture who came down definitively on the comparison. [Emily Yoshida wrote an article titled “Stop Saying Every Piece of Art Is About Trump. Only Boss Baby Is About Trump.”]
It’s uncanny. I would say that.
You’ve mentioned that your book is based on your son’s reaction to a particularly havoc-wreaking new kitten in your home. Did you base Boss Baby’s experiences on your actual son or your life as a mother?
Absolutely, when I had my first son ― we have three and they’re now grown-ups ― but when I had the first baby, my predominant feeling was, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this was going to be so insane?” I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t warned. Then, when my youngest son was 15, he wanted a kitten for Christmas. So we went ahead and we got this little kitten. We had no idea what cats were capable of. The kitten was adorable, but it was pooping under our bed and under our Christmas tree and in the fireplace. My 15-year-old came up to me after about two weeks, really upset, and said, “I kind of think we should take this cat back to the cat adoption place.” I’m like, “Why?” “Because he’s stressing everybody out.” I said, “This is nothing! Nothing. You should have seen what it was like when you guys were babies. We’ll be fine. We’ll learn how to love this cat. Really. Trust me.”
But then I thought, you know, he’s sort of reacting the way new parents do ― the way I felt ― when babies come into your house and start bossing. They become the boss of you. They just come in and take over. So that feeling, somehow, watching [my son] experience it was a really instructive thing for me to see and channel. I don’t know if I would have launched off to work on the book with my own memories of watching it [...] It was a hard book to go from the concept of to anything that was working, more so than other book I had worked on.
Why do you think that is?
I wanted it to be funny, and funny books are hard. When I started, I had too many characters. There were friends and relatives who the baby had as part-time employees, there was a dog the baby fired. There was more. And I had to take a lot of that out. And maybe he wasn’t as abrasive as he needed to be. So to get some distance as him as a real baby and focus on him more as a crazy boss, that was a line that was a little tough to find.
What was it like, in turn, seeing this pared-down story turned into a feature-length film? Did the filmmakers incorporate some of the details you’d originally wanted to include?
A lot of them are there, and that has been interesting. I knew from the very beginning that this 32-page picture book being turned into a feature-length film was going to be a very different animal. It just is. I think what the book focuses on is when a baby comes into a family and really is the boss of the parents ― there are no siblings in the first book. [Editor’s Note: Frazee did write a second book, The Bossier Baby, last fall, in which the Boss Baby is demoted by little sister CEO.] But in the movie, [older brother] Tim Templeton is the unreliable narrator and so it is about his displacement.
But what I think is the same, is just how a baby just changes a family’s life. In the film, I was amazed by how a lot of the lines that are narrated by Toby Maguire as adult Tim Templeton are almost verbatim the text of the book. So it sets up the film and the memory almost line for line.
Obviously The Boss Baby is a children’s book and, now, a kid’s movie. But it’s doing very well, largely because, I would assume, adults also enjoy the story. As a writer of children’s stories, how do you balance the desire to make a plot resonate with kids, yet entertain adults, too?
For me, the reason I love doing picture books so much is that I know that the picture-book-aged child ― who is the audience for the book ― they are the best picture-readers of all of us. Once we learn how to read words, we sort of lose that ability to read the picture narrative as expertly as we do. I worry about how to keep their attention and not make mistakes, because they’ll find them if I put them in there by accident. Once I feel like I’ve locked that into place and it’s saying what I want it to, the words, for me, they accompany the pictures and hopefully bounce off of them in interesting ways that build to something more. I feel like I’m going to get the child reader with the picture story and keep the adult reader there with the words. But I’m not as interested in that as I am the picture-book-age child who’s going to read the book over and over again and live with it in a way an adult never will.
When you started out as an illustrator and author, were you influenced by any artists or writers who came before you?
So many. One of the books that made me want to grow up and do this was Where the Wild Things Are. Specifically, the place where Max’s room turns into a forest, just blew me away. I found it to be one of the most miraculous, magical things I had ever seen. I just wanted to learn how to do that ― that sort of page-turn magic. I was very much into the idea of becoming a children’s book author because of that book.
And the other book was Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, because I loved Sal so much. She was such a quirky, specific child, so much so that I wanted to be her. I didn’t just want to look at her in a book. I wished she was me and I was her. I felt so attached to her. Later, when I went to school and took art classes, and eventually went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and studied illustration, I would always think about the way he drew her, which was so specific and detailed and so full of life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.