After a lull in noteworthy new Dreamworks animations, The Bad Guys takes a simple recipe for a breezy children’s outing and crafts a fairly fun anthropomorphized heist movie out of it. The two ideas here are accessible and broadly stated in many animated films already. French animator turned director Pierre Perifel proposes an uncomplicated idea. His film explores the duality of good and bad, using our preconceptions of certain kinds of disreputable animals, to show how prejudices are just ideas and that everyone is capable of change. The other idea, much less clever, is that old animation chestnut of supplanting distinctly human personalities onto animals, as a means of easy characterization, when distinctive animation can usually do that job for a movie, instead. Built around trope-driven heist movie standards it all goes easily enough, it’s plain sailing when the concepts are smoothed out and already so audience tested but the good news is that characters connect, the animation eventually necessitates itself, and Dreamworks have produced another fine movie that is not a sequel.
You know about the Oceans 11 franchise and how those movies work. Whether or not you’ve seen them, you’ve seen the movies they’ve influenced and the clean Soderberghian approach to the heist film. The Bad Guys doesn’t surprise us and mostly bites the same material here. Our lead is Sam Rockwell’s Wolf, played in the same vein as George Clooney’s Danny Ocean but also amusingly with the vocal register of his Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). He leads a gang of total outcasts: Snake (Marc Maron, growling lines); Tarantula (Awkwafina, being Awkwafina); Shark (Craig Robinson, having fun with a fluid character); and Piranha (Anthony Ramos, doing the most and excelling at it). These animals are, of course, often given a bad rap, much like their characters. They are bad because that is the only function people have allowed for them. But they are just animals or stand-ins for people who have fulfilled our expectations of them. Playing between the affected cools of Oceans and Reservoir Dogs (1992), the kinship of the crew and their growing understanding of each other is the key. While it starts like so many prexisting live action versions of the same movie, eventually the fun heist segments play into the animalistic abilities of the cast and what their individual specialties that make them vital members of the crew.
The story develops around two characters outside the crew. Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz, a bog standard voice performance) is after Wolf’s heart and while she may seem to be the purest of characters, has her own moral surprises. Nobody is ever just what they seem. Which leads us to the altruistic Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade, very dialed in), proprietor of a reform program the crew are sent to after a botched heist. The Professor’s narrative arc reverses with that of our anti-heroes and he becomes an evil mega mind who frames the newly reformed crew in an elaborate ploy to have them jailed away while he seizes a powerful artifact. The whole point of all this, as perhaps a concise and useful parable for children, is that our initial prejudices are often wrong, and there’s a thin line between the good guys and the bad guys in the world.
The animation lifts comic book aesthetics off the graphic pages inked and written by Aaron Blabey in his original children’s book series. It adapts directly the basic tenets of those books, colorful stories of redemption and the ability for rehabilitation. There are several very good scenes where we see the character concepts very well realized and inhabiting their world, where perspective and stylization of the characters matter and add to the movement of the picture. There are many others where it plays a little too flatly for how good it shows us that it can be. For a work that is always running up against the wall of cliché, it steadily and invariably separates itself from like-minded attempts and especially creates a small difference in the animated film binary where lead characters can be good or bad but almost always stay within their assigned mode. Instead, the characters here change and the animation suits their development and refined hope and faith in one another, floating in warming pools of yellow color, a signature coloration choice for the film’s jaundiced optimism. It uses such simple ideas and approaches and wears them on its sleeve but these ideas are focus-tested because they work.
It has been a couple years since Dreamwork’s last attempt at a film property that wasn’t a sequel. Boss babies and trolls can only go so far. Those movies really have one trick. They may be useful tricks for setting a child in front of something and letting it play but that is a limited utility for a movie. The Bad Guys fares better than the studio’s uneven attempts to find something that sticks post How to Train Your Dragon. That it’s exceedingly simple is largely to its benefit. It is a children’s story, after all, adapted from a children’s book, into a children’s film. That is a perfectly reasonable function for a movie. Not everyone can be Pixar. Perhaps it’s best when Dreamworks perform their own specific function and create likable movies for a specific audience who are being underserved by a mode of filmmaking that now requires works to be for All Audiences. Surely there is still space for something simple and agreeable like The Bad Guys.