The Bad Guys is the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, based on a series of children’s graphic novels by Australian author Aaron Blabey. While Dreamworks Animation has a tendency to greenlight seemingly any idea that enters their doorway just to see what sticks, the good thing is that every now and again one does stick. The Bad Guys is thankfully one of those ones that sticks! Though the story is nothing groundbreaking for animated features, its terrific animation and art direction, and zany sense of humor elevate it.
The Bad Guys tells the story of a group of, well, bad guys: Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a band of thieves who continue to pull off big heists and elude the authorities.
When new governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) insults the Bad Guys on the local news, Wolf decides to pull their biggest heist to cement their legacy. A local philanthropist, a guinea pig named Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), is going to be awarded the Golden Dolphin for his countless charitable deeds. So Wolf and the gang plan to sneak into the gala and steal the Dolphin as their biggest score to date.
During the heist, Wolf inadvertently saves an old woman from falling down some stairs (he was trying to grab her purse), with the woman’s praises thereafter warming Wolf’s heart. Distracted, Wolf accidently blows the operation, and the Bad Guys are finally caught. But Wolf manages to charm his way out of jail time by appealing to Professor Marmalade’s good nature, with Governor Foxington agreeing to let Marmalade train the Bad Guys to become “the Good Guys.” Wolf explains to the gang that it’s all part of the ultimate con, to pretend to go good as a cover as to remain bad and steal the Dolphin, much to the delight of the rest of the group (except Snake, the “baddest” of the bunch, who is hesitant with the idea). But remembering how good he felt when helping the old woman, Wolf begins to wonder if a life of bad is the life he actually wants.
Although the story has its charms, it does kind of feel like we’ve gone through a time machine back to the early 2010s, when the idea of “bad guys going good” was pretty common in animated features. Despicable Me, Wreck-It Ralph and Dreamworks’ own Megamind were all variations on the premise (Wreck-It Ralph being the one that’s stood tall against the test of time). Heck, you could even argue that Shrek kind of had a similar setup all the way back in 2001. Point being, The Bad Guys’s plot isn’t exactly sailing uncharted waters, but it makes up for a lack of originality in its story in other areas.
First and foremost is the animation. Rather than going the traditional route of CG animation or Dreamworks’ usual character designs, The Bad Guys merges CG characters with hand-drawn sensibilities (a trait also recently seen in Pixar’s Turning Red) and seems to be drawing from a wide range of influences. There’s obviously a very cartoony, Looney Tunes vibe, but also with a dash of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball or Dr. Slump. It’s a terrific film to look at, with a fluidity and zaniness to the character’s movements that evokes the best slapstick animation. I especially like the human police chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), who kind of looks like Wreck-It Ralph, and stomps and punches around the place as she pursues the Bad Guys.
Another highlight is the film’s sense of humor. Not only does The Bad Guys boast some great cartoonish antics and gags, but also some fun spoofs on gangster and heist films. Nothing too upfront (thankfully), but there’s some fun homages that are subtle enough to make them cleverer than if they did the Shrek approach of obvious parody (Tarantino’s filmography and the Oceans films seem like favorite targets for the film). What’s impressive is that The Bad Guys never feels like a kids’ movie trying to win over the older crowd. It simply delivers the humor inherent in its story and characters, which should appeal to audiences of any age. It feels natural and works seamlessly.
There are admittedly some pacing issues in the film’s middle act, with some major aspects of the plot kind of rushing by in order for the film to make another twist or turn in the story. In all honesty, these twists are mostly fun, though the biggest ones are probably also the most obvious. It would be nice if the film had a slightly longer running time, so that these twists didn’t come at the expense of what was previously being built up. But it’s ultimately a small price to pay for how entertaining The Bad Guys otherwise is.
The Bad Guys is the kind of movie that I think any audience will have fun with. It’s exciting, funny, action-packed, well-acted and visually inspired. It may not be among the deeper animated films of recent memory, and it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of, say, a Pixar movie. But not every animated film has to. Sometimes a fun, entertaining movie is more than enough. And The Bad Guys delivers just that.