The Bad Guys Review: A Breezy, Kid-Friendly Caper

There are only so many ways the same handful of story arcs in mainstream animated movies can be told. Though the medium of animation itself can be expansive and aim far beyond the expectations of studio execs who presume that cartoons are for children, so many modern titles cover the same kind of ground. Consider, for example, the idea of a stereotypically bad guy turning into a hero. This faux-antihero arc has been the subject of films like "Shrek," "Wreck-It Ralph," and the "Despicable Me" franchise, all of which feature a lead character everyone else assumes is a villain, only for them to reveal hidden layers. We're more than twenty years removed from the first "Shrek," and DreamWorks Animation is still going back to this well in the form of their latest film, "The Bad Guys." The film adaptation of Aaron Blabey's series of kid-friendly graphic novels maintains a welcome visual flair and features a game voice cast while treading extremely familiar ground.

The eponymous quintet all seem like they'd have to be bad guys: there's the smooth-talking Mr. Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell), the slick leader of a crew of skilled thieves in a very fictionalized Los Angeles; his best friend is the grouchy Mr. Snake (Marc Maron); and they're joined by master of disguises Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), hacker extraordinaire Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), and the group's muscle Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). As "The Bad Guys" starts, the characters are both reckless and talented at robbing banks and eluding capture by the LAPD. But Mr. Wolf is tempted by the good side after being complimented by a kindly old woman for stopping her from falling down a flight of stairs. Soon enough, though, the Bad Guys are caught in the act of stealing a humanitarian award but saved by its recipient, the eternally goodhearted Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), who tries to turn them all into good guys instead of being thrown in jail.

The outline of this film, written by Etan Cohen, will be familiar to a) anyone who has read Blabey's manic and enjoyable books with these characters, and b) anyone who has seen the earlier animated titles that serve as inspiration. (The surface-level discussion of stereotypes, partly driven by the state governor, a fox voiced by Zazie Beetz, is also reminiscent of Disney's "Zootopia.") The pleasures of "The Bad Guys" are not driven by the writing feeling particularly fresh or new. In its best moments, "The Bad Guys" thrives on snappy pacing and a computer-animated style that reflects Blabey's hand-drawn style in the graphic novels themselves. Car-chase sequences in the opening and closing sections of "The Bad Guys" are genuinely thrilling and represent the high points of the film, largely thanks to director Pierre Perifel (making his feature debut) and his team of animators. 

A slick take on a familiar story

The story in between those chases is slightly less thrilling, though Cohen peppers the script with one-liner after one-liner, including a heaping helping of pop-culture references sure to appease the parents in the audience, if not their kids. (You will have to take my word on it that when a character said Wolf's charm offensive was "the full Clooney," my son whispered to me, "I don't understand that." It's safe to assume most kids wouldn't, though.) If there's a credit to give to the cast, it's that — as recognizable as they are — there's very little sense of lazy voiceover with little to no energy. Rockwell's laid-back charm works very well for his take on the sly Wolf, who balances his shrewdness with an unavoidable desire to be better than people perceive him to be. And early on, his voice work meshes well with that of comedian and podcaster Marc Maron, cast appropriately as the tetchy and oft-annoyed Snake. (Though he does not get to extol the virtues of coffee that makes him soil himself, Maron and the rest of the cast all but say the words, "So, who are your guys?" here, which is another little joy for any adults in the audience who know Maron from "WTF.") Robinson, Ramos, and Awkwafina do a fine job as the slightly-less-onscreen rest of the eponymous Bad Guys, with Robinson's giddy take on the inexplicably effective incognito thief Shark particularly fun.

And there are a few moments where "The Bad Guys" effectively manages to fall in line with the many grown-up films it's trying to reference. The opening scene, a back-and-forth conversation between criminals at a diner talking about random minutia, feels like a nod to Quentin Tarantino's '90s-era films, and the climactic heist and chase nods to the "Ocean's" series and even, briefly, "Point Break." But more often than not, "The Bad Guys" gives off the air of a remix of earlier animated films from Disney and DreamWorks Animation. It's unfortunate — because while Blabey's source material also has the same basic setup, its propulsive pacing in each successive installment makes it a lot easier to look past where the author's mining his ideas from. Here, the ways in which "The Bad Guys" owes a heavy debt to other films are hard to miss for anyone old enough to remember those other titles.

All that said, "The Bad Guys" has its charms, even if they're less impactful than recent original Pixar fare like "Luca" or "Turning Red." The animation of the main characters is a clever balance of flatter two-dimensional characters and computer animation, and some of the visual gags are well done. And in those bookend action sequences, Perifel and his team create solid reminders that animation's barriers are much slimmer than that of live-action, allowing for more creative and intricately detailed chases. When you look at DreamWorks Animation's other titles, both recent releases and their few upcoming ones, it's enough to want to like "The Bad Guys" more. As it is, the film is light and fun and enjoyable enough, at least in the moment. Who knows? If the film's enough of a hit, DWA will likely turn this into a franchise, allowing for a more entertaining sequel.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10