Well, this was a happy little accident. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for Dreamworks Animation.
DWA switched hands from 20th Century Fox to Universal back in 2017. (Three guesses why that happened.) In the years since, not only has DWA had to toil through the pandemic years, but they’ve also had to build a working relationship with their new corporate overlords while carving out their own identity separate from their new corporate siblings at Illumination. All of this at a time when How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda — their two flagship franchises after Shrek and Madagascar both ran their courses — had wound down. So what have they come up with in the time since?
Abominable. Trolls: World Tour. The Croods: A New Age. Spirit Untamed. The Boss Baby: Family Business.
Granted, none of those movies (with the notable exception of Spirit Untamed) were abject failures. While some got better critical reception than others, all of them made money and were well-received by audiences. Of course, I’m sure it helped that most of those were released during the pandemic, at a time when parents and kids were stuck together at home and ravenous for all-ages entertainment on streaming.
Even so, it bears remembering that The Croods: A New Age came out seven years after its prequel. Spirit Untamed was a sequel to a film that came out nearly twenty freaking years prior. As for the upcoming Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, that film’s prequel came out a decade ago, and the mainline Shrek franchise has been over for just as long. And who in the nine hells was seriously asking for a sequel to Boss Baby, much less a franchise?
It’s not a good look when a studio is releasing so many sequels — not reboots, but sequels — for franchises that haven’t been active since before their target demographic was born. Moreover, look at How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda — arguably two of the most perfect trilogies in film history — then look at Trolls and Boss Baby, and tell me with a straight face that the studio’s quality isn’t on the decline. What might be even worse is when they come out with movies like Captain Underpants or Abominable, both perfectly fine pictures well-deserving of their own fresh new franchises, only for Dreamworks to squander them with direct-to-streaming television spinoffs that nobody will ever see.
We’d damn well better hope they don’t squander The Bad Guys like that, or the studio is fucking done.
The Bad Guys comes to us from journeyman screenwriter Etan Cohen, loosely adapting an ongoing series of children’s graphic novels from Aaron Blabey. In the director’s seat is Pierre Perifel, here making his feature debut after a respectable tenure animating for Dreamworks.
The film is set in a heavily fictionalized version of Los Angeles, with three major differences. 1) A strange heart-shaped (or butt-shaped, depending on who you ask) meteorite recently landed in Los Angeles, and there’s still a massive crater where half the city should be. 2) Humans and anthropomorphic talking animals are peacefully living side-by-side, though humans appear to be the overwhelming majority and there are still animals that don’t talk or walk on two feet… Best not to think about it. And 3) every human in the city is dumber than a bag of hammers.
Our main characters are the eponymous “Bad Guys”, who’ve been social pariahs ever since they had the misfortune of being born as scary and dangerous animals. The logic goes that if they’ll never be accepted or loved by society at large, they can at least be feared. Thus the five of them team up and devote themselves to a life of crime. The crew is as follows.
- Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) is the leader and mastermind of the pack. He’s also the resident pickpocket, con artist, and getaway driver.
- Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) is Wolf’s longtime best friend. He’s notably a skilled safecracker, but he’s primarily useful to the rest of the team as a grappling hook.
- Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), also nicknamed “Webs”, is the tech expert and hacker of the group.
- Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the resident actor and master of disguise. If it sounds ridiculous that a freaking great white shark could plausibly disguise himself as any kind of human, I’ll remind you that every human character in this movie is too stupid to live. That’s the joke.
- Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos, of all people) is the pint-sized maniac who provides the group’s muscle. The character is also notable for his flatulence, bad enough to literally clear an entire room. Yes, the filmmakers found a way to make a recurring fart joke into a practical aspect of the characters’ heists.
In the supporting cast, we’ve got Zazie Beetz on hand as Diane Foxington, a fox recently elected to serve as governor. And of course she’s a potential love interest for Wolf. Richard Ayoade voices Professor Marmalade, a saintly guinea pig who’s come to worldwide fame and adoration through his philanthropic efforts. Last but not least is Alex Borstein, here voicing the bumbling and overzealous police chief, human Misty Luggins.
(Side note: Keep an ear out for a cameo appearance from Barbara Goodson, best known to my fellow ’90s kids as the voice of Rita Repulsa.)
After an introductory car chase, the plot gets going with a ceremony in which Prof. Marmalade is set to receive the prestigious Golden Dolphin Award in recognition for his work in making the world a better place. The Golden Dolphin statuette itself is famously difficult to steal, as numerous criminals have tried and failed to get past all the security. Long story short, our gang try and fail to get past all the security.
Desperate to keep their freedom, Wolf sweet-talks Prof. Marmalade and Gov. Foxington into a deal. The Bad Guys will be released into Marmalade’s custody to see if the world-famous philanthropist can rehabilitate them. Our gang of criminals only need to play along for a couple of weeks, then they can go back to their evil ways when they’re off scot free. Naturally, things go wrong.
First and foremost, this is a story all about how looks are deceiving, there’s more to a person than a first impression, it’s entirely possible that a bad person has the potential to be good or vice versa, and it’s not like the definitions of “good” or “bad” are really clear-cut and you already know where this is going. Seriously, if you’ve got two brain cells to rub together and you’ve literally seen any movie before, you already know the big twist before you’ve even seen this film. And if you do see the film, I sincerely hope for your sake that you see the big twist coming an hour before the characters do.
That aside, Wolf quickly finds out that virtue is indeed its own reward. Once he gets a taste of what it’s like to be loved or at least appreciated for some good deed, he finds out that it actually feels really satisfying. What’s more, as the film unfolds and their apparent efforts at rehabilitation gain viral online praise, all of the Bad Guys start to get a feel for what it’s like to be applauded and respected. It challenges the only worldview they’ve ever known, leading them to question whether they really have to be hated and feared their entire lives.
I might add that Wolf wags his tail when he’s feeling happy about doing a good deed. It’s a cute visual expression of his internal moral conflict, done in a way that directly undercuts his own ne’er-do-well self-image. Nice touch.
On the other hand, those lifelong impulses and prejudices are still there. Everyone else spent their entire lives assuming the worst about the Bad Guys, and it’s entirely possible that they could turn on our gang again at any time for any reason. More importantly, the Bad Guys have grown so wealthy and comfortable with the old status quo, they have little reason to change for the benefit of other people. In fact, no matter how they may change for the better, they were born dangerous predators and that’s how they’ll stay.
The basic conceit of a heist movie for kids works out way better in practice than in theory. After all, any decent heist requires so many moving parts to go perfectly right; employing any number of contrivances, coincidences, oversights, and outright plot holes; and the overall heist film is judged on how well it can make all of that seem plausible. Here, we’ve got a kids’ film in which anthropomorphic talking animals are coexisting with humans. After buying into a film with such an absurd setting, the audience is already primed to suspend disbelief for pretty much anything.
In fact, it might actually work in the film’s favor that so many characters are one-dimensional and so much of the plot is predictable. Too often, I thought I had this movie all figured out and I knew exactly where everything was headed. That made it so much more satisfying when I got hit with some reveal or plot twist that came in from left field. Seriously, the film can get remarkably clever with the setups and payoffs at times.
Speaking of which, I made a comment in a recent blog entry about the cliche of walking into a bar full of hostiles and defusing the situation with a dance-off. At the time, I said it was a kiss of death in a kid’s movie. Now, it appears I have to amend that statement. It works perfectly fine here because A) the dance number is superbly choreographed, B) it advances the character development arcs in a significant way, and C) it’s a distraction to serve as part of the greater heist. So yeah, this one gets a pass.
Alex Borstein’s performance is a laugh riot, Richard Ayoade perfectly sells every aspect of Prof. Marmalade, and Zazie Beetz is of course effortlessly charming. I’m sorry to say the rest of the voice acting isn’t as great, but the animation more than makes up for it. These are beautifully expressive characters, the art style looks fantastic, the editing is clear enough to help us keep track of where everything is in the heists and chases… the film looks incredible.
The Bad Guys is predictable and one-dimensional in the broad strokes, but the finer details are exceptional. When the film really gets into its groove, the proceedings are stylish, energetic, diabolically clever, and incredible fun. At its absolute best, the film is smart enough to spin threadbare themes and character arcs into something fresh and heartfelt. Even at its worst, the film is simple enough for kids to follow without actively insulting anyone’s intelligence (though it skims that line pretty darn close).
I had a surprisingly good time. Check this one out and enjoy it, because I’ve got a sinking suspicion that we won’t get so lucky a second time with this potential franchise.