Ever since the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” there’s been an uptick in experimenting with more graphic 2D animation styles, including Oscar winner “Soul,” and this season’s contenders “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” and “Luca.” You can add “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (opening theatrically and streaming on Peacock Independence weekend), as DreamWorks leans more heavily into retro-looking fantasy than in the blockbuster original. That’s because director Tom McGrath applied his passion for classic hand-drawn animation as a celebration of childhood imagination.
In fact, the graphically surreal centerpiece revolves around Cat Stevens’ beloved ode to non-conformity, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” (from “Harold and Maude”) sung by James Marsden and Ariana Greenblatt (voicing father Tim and daughter Tabitha). Tim is transformed into a child once again and joins Tabitha in a pink and purple sea of yellow trumpets and floral shapes, along with more colorful and dreamy imagery, recalling Disney’s “Pink Elephants on Parade” from “Dumbo.”
“I wanted this to be a celebration of imagination in kids,” McGrath said. “The concept for this centered on a school where kids are forced to grow up too fast [run by a quirky, nefarious professor voiced by the always delightful Jeff Goldblum]. How long can you hold onto it? Tim as a father worries about drifting apart from his daughter. Family drama continues through your adult years and the brothers, Tim and Ted [Boss Baby Alec Baldwin], drifted apart. The springboard became turning these two men back into children so they’d have to relive their childhoods to reconcile their differences, and for Tim and his daughter to reconcile theirs [with the help of Boss Baby daughter Tina, voiced by Amy Sedaris].”
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And what better way to bring father and daughter closer together than with the illustrative power of classic animation and the timeless Stevens anthem?
“To me, the language of that childhood imagination is some of the golden age animation that I remember watching in a theater, from ‘Fantasia’ to ‘What’s Opera, Doc?'” McGrath continued. “The kinds of things that animation does best is making these worlds that feel like you’re stepping into a painting.
“It felt right to take what we did in the first movie and push it farther and more integrated into the story, especially with ‘Sing Out.’ We could go into this artistic world if we did it right. And those films made such a huge impression on me when I was a kid. I just wanted to bring that back for kids now, so that hopefully they could see it in a theater and it would be mind-altering to them as much as it was for me.”
In “Boss Baby,” DreamWorks experimented with some brief 2D-looking daydreams and alternate realities inspired by “Looney Tunes” shorts. McGrath first toyed with this in the “Madagascar” franchise. This was overseen by animator Andy Schuler, who came up with his own workflow for the designs and backgrounds, with a series of modeling and projection paintings done in modo and Houdini. Schuler leveraged and improved on that in the sequel for more elaborate results.
“He has this very child-like view of the world and we thought it would be great to have Andy Land,” said McGrath. “A hard part was they had to make the movie work in [stereoscopic] 3D, so everything had to be volumetric as well. It was quite a challenge to make it look like a painting and also be able to have left eye/right eye views in sync.”
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Yet the idea for using “Sing Out” was purely accidental. At first, it was used as a temp piece, with the intention of composing an original song for the sequence with composers Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro. (They already had an original song for the climax, “Divided We Fall, Together We Stand.”)
“The more we listened to it, the more it worked,” added McGrath. “And Hans thought it worked great and he knew Cat Stevens and it worked out great.”
There was also a surreal courtroom nightmare sequence showcasing Tim’s anxiety as a stay at home dad, but another dream sequence never made it into the final film because of length.
“This is where Tim saved [Tabitha] from Ted’s sinking yacht because it was filled with gold,” the director said. “And then these dolphin aliens come out of the water and award him the galaxy’s best dad coffee mug. I would love to do a whole movie in that type of style. The more animated films get closer to live action, the more I want to go back in time.”