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‘The Bad Guys’ is really good

April 25, 2022
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One of the biggest obstacles faced by animated filmmakers – specifically, those making family-friendly features – is finding ways to make their work appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Those efforts don’t always work out – we’ve all seen animated fare that tries to pack in a bit too much winking and nodding for the adults in the room, to the detriment of the experience of the actual target audience. Even Pixar, whose work is easily the best at walking that line, occasionally loses the thread.

Other times, the powers that be don’t even bother, instead choosing to pack their film with low-hanging fruit and banking on the fact that, in the end, their bottom line isn’t going to change appreciably whether grown-ups like their movie or not.

Like I said – it’s hard. But it can be done.

“The Bad Guys,” the new film from the folks at DreamWorks, largely manages to walk that fine line. Directed by longtime animator and first-time feature director Pierre Perifel from an Etan Cohen screenplay loosely adapted on the Aaron Blabey-penned children’s book series of the same name, the film captures that broad appeal, providing plenty of kid-friendly gags and jokes while also offering adults a few winks and a surprisingly solid heist movie framework to enjoy.

I’ll confess that I had lowish expectations for this one, if only because of the marketing deluge of the past few weeks; I tend to equate those massive pushes with a publicity team that doesn’t have a lot of faith in their film. Instead, what I got was a funny, charming film that managed to provide moments both sophisticated and sophomoric while, yes, appealing to all ages.

The Bad Guys are a crew of criminals notorious for the size and scope of their capers. The group is led by the charismatic schemer Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell). Also in the gang are: the sarcastic safecracker Mr. Snake (Marc Maron); the loose cannon muscle Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos); the sly, sharp hacker Ms. Tarantula aka Webs (Awkwafina); and the goofball master of disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson).

For years, this quintet has been pulling off legendary heists; their reputation as “bad guys” precedes them in everything that they do. But when some off-handed remarks from the state’s governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) wound Wolf’s pride, he decides to enlist the crew for their most daring crime yet – stealing the coveted Golden Dolphin on the very night is to be awarded to beloved guinea pig philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade).

But the events of that evening are merely the beginning of a long and arduous journey for Wolf and the rest of the crew – a journey that has them all questioning just why they behave the way that they do and whether they might be capable of something more. While Governor Foxington and Police Chief Luggins (Alex Borstein) are skeptical, Professor Marmalade believes it might be possible to help these bad guys change their villainous ways.

From there, we get quite a twist-laden adventure, wherein Mr. Wolf discovers that there is far more to those around him than meets the eye and that he might be the only one who can save the day, even if that isn’t his usual M.O. Some might argue that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but can you teach a bad wolf good tricks? Is he a criminal by nature or due to nurture? And just what does it mean to be good, anyway?

Real talk: this movie is a delight.

“The Bad Guys” is successful precisely because it doesn’t try too hard. There’s a lightness to the storytelling that makes it accessible for kids – even quite young ones – even as it provides points of entry to older viewers as well. It takes a clever conceit and translates it in numerous engaging ways, providing a high-energy good time to all involved. It is also consistently funny, combining some lowbrow jokes with moments of more high-concept humor, all of it blending together cleanly.

It’s an aesthetically interesting film, albeit one perhaps a touch hindered by the DreamWorks house style of animation. Still, the director’s bona fides as an animator are pretty clear; this is a movie made by someone who clearly understands the rhythms of animated fare, the ebb and flow necessary to keep a movie like this interesting without becoming overwhelming.

Narratively, the characters are reasonably well-developed and there are some solid underlying thematic messages – don’t judge a book by its cover, people can change, loyalty to your friends is important, etc. Standard kid movie stuff, in a lot of ways, but elevated by the fact that it has all been encased in what turns out to be a decent heist movie. Think “Ocean’s 11,” only animated and with a more specific redemption arc (and a running gag about farts).

The voice cast is packed with familiar names. Happily, you don’t get much in the way of “this famous person isn’t trying because they’re famous,” which is nice. Rockwell is a great choice here as Mr. Wolf; he’s got a couple of charming heart-of-gold grifters on his CV and it’s nice to hear him stretch those muscles again. Maron is snarky and coarse as Mr. Snake, his edgy energy providing a nice odd couple counterpoint to Rockwell. Awkwafina always has fun with these sorts of roles. Robinson’s character is built largely on sight gags, but when he gets to play, he really goes for it. Ramos is clearly having a blast; not only does he land some great lines, but he actually sings mid-film, a tune titled “Good Tonight” that actually kind of slaps. It’s rare to get a real ensemble feel with an animated cast, but this group gets there. Supporting players are solid as well; Ayoade is fun and Beetz is particularly excellent.

“The Bad Guys” is a true rarity: a family film that really will entertain the whole family. It’s visually interesting, well-plotted and very funny – the whole package. In short, “The Bad Guys” is actually really good.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 25 April 2022 11:15

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