Film Review – The Bad Guys
The Bad Guys
The Bad Guys (2022), the latest adventure from DreamWorks Animation, imagines a world where anthropomorphic animals live and interact with humans. They walk on two legs, wear human clothing, drive cars, communicate with spoken language, etc. This – of course – raises a host of questions. How did these animals learn to walk and talk like people? Why aren’t people more alarmed that a wolf wears clothing despite being covered in fur? How do pets still exist in this reality? I get that these are details we shouldn’t be worried about given that this is meant to be a fun animated romp. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that the world building was a little…strange.
Another odd point involves our protagonists. We’re introduced to Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Snake (Marc Maron), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos). It’s explained that the five are classic scary villains – a quick montage shows how Wolf is the very same character of “Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and so on. They inhabit their roles as criminals willingly, becoming renowned thieves to the detriment of the L.A. police chief (Alex Borstein) and Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz). None of this makes a lick of sense. If the five are represented in children’s books, TV, and movies, shouldn’t they already be wealthy beyond comprehension? Do they dabble in thievery just for the fun of it?
After their latest heist goes south, our band of merry troublemakers are apprehended by authorities. The governor gives them an ultimatum: Enjoy the confines of the slammer or make an honest attempt to turn good. The choice is practically made for them. Led by Good Samaritan of The Year, the guinea pig Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), the career criminals enter a program to help them find their better selves. The narrative becomes a back and forth, as we watch the five struggle with doing the right thing or falling prey to their worst instincts.
The idea of villainous characters having a change of heart is not exactly new territory for DreamWorks. The setup has become standard fare for the studio. We’ve seen it in Megamind (2010) and to a much larger degree, Despicable Me (2010). The blueprint has become so successful that we see Despicable Me sequels and spinoffs to this very day. Although The Bad Guys travels a well-worn path, director Pierre Perifel and screenwriter Etan Cohen (adapting Aaron Blabey’s books) adds just enough nuance to make this old story feel new. Themes of physical appearance, stereotypes, and breaking conventional social norms all factor into the narrative. Wolf, Snake, Shark, Tarantula, and Piranha are pigeonholed into specific roles. The fact that they can be vessels of good comes as a shock, and for some this revelation is difficult to accept.
The animation renders the visuals with a unique color palette. There’s a blend between lifelike backgrounds, props and vehicles and wacky, bendy character designs. I’ve never seen Los Angeles illustrated in such a way, with fog and haze settled in the distance. Skyscrapers and palm trees are obscured by a misty yellow glow – smog is ever present during day scenes. Action is executed in the same vein as comic books, with motion lines accentuating physical movements. When a character snaps their fingers, slams a door shut, or punches an adversary, the shot is heightened with these details. The aesthetic is reminiscent of comic strips or even the 1960s Batman television show. The production could have added the familiar “Booms!” and “Pows!” to set pieces and it would’ve fit the tone appropriately.
The way each character is assigned a skillset will undoubtably draw comparisons to Ocean’s Eleven (2001), with Wolf’s cool, unfazed leader being inspired by George Clooney. The entire cast delivers strong vocal work. Maron’s disillusioned Snake and Ramos’ unhinged, flatulent Piranha are the two big standouts. They elicit the strongest dramatic weight as well as the biggest laughs. There are a lot of twists and turns throughout the plot. Character motivations shift almost from scene to scene. The writing keeps most of these moving parts in check, although it starts to fold in on itself in the latter stages. One of the biggest tropes of heist stories is the “It Was All Part of The Plan” device. This is a weaker function of storytelling because it offers an easy out for the writing. It explains that no matter what danger our protagonists are in, it was never really that bad because they secretly anticipated everything beforehand. We get a lot of that, especially in the second half. Luckily, the character development was strong enough to make up for the plotting.
Although The Bad Guys rehashes a well-used story, it has such a distinctive personality that it can stand on its own. It takes the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and runs with it in fun and absurd ways. Some might find the hyperactive energy a little overwhelming, but it’s balanced with an earnest attitude. If you can believe a fox can drive a speedboat or a fish can wear a tuxedo and sing like a rockstar, then you’ll have no problems here.