The Bad Guys is an energetic crowd-pleaser with some inspired animation, but it’s hampered by lazy storytelling and an overreliance on meta-ness and winking reference.
Based on a series of children’s graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, new animated comedy The Bad Guys bills itself not as a “film” in its opening credits, but as a “caper,” which certainly speaks to the overall tenor of this particular adaptation, courtesy of director Pierre Perifel and writer Etan Cohen. Opening in a run-of-the-mill diner, a rather loquacious wolf and snake discuss such varied topics as birthday parties and the tantalizing gourmet appeal of guinea pigs. Presented as a long take lasting over five minutes in length, the “camera” finally pulls back to reveal the other patrons, all of whom are frozen in abject horror at the nefarious individuals in their presence. While a wolf and a snake are understandably feared in everyday life, these particular ones are also wanted criminals, a fact soon made clear as our protagonists walk over to a neighboring bank and perform an elaborate heist, leading to a breathtaking car chase. Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) are merely two of five members of a notorious band of criminals, the likes of which include master computer hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), master of disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and the violence-prone loose cannon, Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). Together, they are the eponymous gang The Bad Guys, routinely hunted by gruff police chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), narrowly escaping capture in every instance.
As can surely be inferred, The Bad Guys is a gloss on any number of heist flicks featuring a rag-tag group of likeable rapscallions whose dastardly deeds merely highlight their innate charms and devastating charisma. The fact that Mr. Wolf is at one point described as going “full Clooney” certainly drives the point home in ways both unsubtle and predictable for 21st-century animated fare that is devoutly referential and self-aware. That winking attitude permeates most of The Bad Guys, where inside jokes lobbed at the parents in the audience jockey with a plot that even a toddler might find overly familiar. The thwarted theft of a valuable award at a glitzy gala leads to the eventual capture of our gang of thieves, where a wealthy philanthropist and world-renowned scientist — and, as it happens, guinea pig — by the name of Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) takes it upon himself to prove the power of good by making the claim that he can change the very nature of these five individuals, transforming them from ruthless adversaries to law-abiding citizens.
At times, the film feels like a mash-up between such past Dreamworks fare as Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda and Disney’s Zootopia, what with its overt messaging on the perils of stereotyping and xenophobia. Why should our protagonists attempt to be good when the world will always view them as evil? Does their adoption of these negative qualities only reinforce harmful stereotypes? Is it possible to overcome the labels society places on us? Heady enough stuff for a kids’ flick, but aside from a few self-reflexive moments, the film doesn’t really dwell on these particular topics, the lack of heavy-handedness proving particularly refreshing. Above all else, this is a crowd-pleaser, delivering numerous action sequences that exhibit welcomingly kinetic animation — plus, there are enough fart jokes to leave any six-year-old breathless. The voice cast is uniformly strong, with Rockwell proving an adept (if on-the-nose) choice to voice a charismatic hustler who can come across as aw-shucks innocent one moment and borderline sinister the next without once ever losing his likeability. The animation itself is also rather inspired, adopting an ultra-stylized look that shies away from the photorealism flavor of its CG counterparts. The backgrounds, meanwhile, are painterly in nature, while the bustling action sequences call to mind classic hand-drawn more than anything else.
Unfortunately, however, the film is beyond basic in its storytelling, as plot and characterization are clichéd to the point of tedium. It’s also never particularly laugh-out-loud funny, more smirk-worthy, and its stabs at meta-cleverness come across as more grating than anything else. And when the film stops dead in its tracks for an elaborate, mid-film song-and-dance number courtesy of Ramos, it’s as unsurprising as it is uninspired. The world-building is especially half-assed, as the entire population of this city is made up of human beings except for our five protagonists, the aforementioned Professor Marmalade, and governor(!) Diane Foxington. There’s also a scene where thousands of guinea pigs are freed from a facility where harmful medical testing was being performed on them. This begs the question: why can Marmalade talk, but not these guinea pigs? Why are they sold as pets, while Marmalade apparently went to college and got his Ph.D.? And these human citizens elected a fox for public office? Such questions may seem inane, but honestly, what the hell is going on here? Such hooey is obviously not a deal breaker for a children’s film of this ilk, but the quibble is that The Bad Guys gives you too much time to think about these things, even as it delivers a handful of entertaining diversions. That’s to say, for a movie that functions only in extremes, it ultimately finds itself stuck in a murky middle ground. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Meh Guys.