Dreamwork’s latest animated offering provides a fun, albeit shallow, romp with morally gray characters in a colorful world.
Who doesn’t love a good redemption arc? We want to believe the best in people. We want to believe people can change for the better. It’s no surprise, then, that the reformation of a character from an unrepentant villain to a heroic figure provides a very satisfying type of catharsis.
Director Pierre Perifel uses this character arc in his directorial debut, The Bad Guys. While his adaptation of Aaron Blabey’s book series of the same name is hardly groundbreaking, he infuses it with so much charm and manic energy to give it an old-fashioned joie de vivre.
Set in a world populated by both humans and anthropomorphic animals, The Bad Guys focuses on the titular gang of thieves. Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) is the gang’s leader. His best friend, Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), is the second-in-command and in charge of safe-cracking. Rounding out the team is Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), the hacker; Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), the brawn; and Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), the master of disguise.
The group spends their days robbing banks and other prestigious institutions. They’re so notorious that the mere sight of them will send the general public into a panic. However, their crime spree comes to an end when they are caught trying to steal an award statue. The award’s recipient, Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), offers to reform them with a wager before they head to jail. If they can turn themselves into “good guys” by the time of his Goodness Gala, they’ll be forgiven for their crimes.
This wager forces The Bad Guys to make a genre change almost halfway through the film. The first act is a kid-friendly crime flick- the opening scene is a Tarantino-inspired diner vignette that transitions into a thrilling robbery and car chase. The award show heist is an Ocean’s Eleven-esque affair, with an intricate plan and cool gadgets.
However, once the Bad Guys are in Marmalade’s custody, the film turns into a fish-out-of-water style training montage. With the gang learning how to be good, to comedic effect. Unfortunately, The Bad Guys is more fun than funny, with most of the jokes relying on either fart jokes or general zaniness. Kids will probably find it funny, but the adults in the audience will be hoping for the action scenes to return, which, thankfully, they rapidly do.
While the characters are simplistic, they are portrayed excellently by a pitch-perfect cast.
But the slowing down of the plot in the second act does allow Perifel to explore the emotional turmoil embroiling Mr.Wolf. See, during the award show heist, he inadvertently saves an older woman while trying to rob him. In her gratitude, she calls him a “good boy,” which causes the hardened criminal to feel the joy of being good for the first time in his life. Now, Mr. Wolf isn’t sure if he wants to be a bad guy anymore, but he’s afraid that society will accept him if he does reform.
This conflict is explored in a child-friendly way, which can cause it to be a little simplistic. The gang is literally called “The Bad Guys,” after all. The film tells us these thieves are the way they are because of how society treats them. However, all the proof we get is people running away in horror. It’s never clear if this happened before or after they became infamous criminals. Goodness is also portrayed simplistically and somewhat problematically. The implication often is that one should do good because it feels good rather than because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not a nuanced discussion of ethics, but it works as a way to introduce concepts such as stereotyping and acting morally to younger children.
While the characters are simplistic, they are portrayed excellently by a pitch-perfect cast. Rockwell underlies Mr. Wolf’s charming personality with a menace that softens as the character learns to be a better person. Maron plays Mr. Snake as gruff, but vulnerable, and he and Rockwell have great chemistry. Robinson’s Mr. Shark is loveably goofy and easily the funniest member of the cast, while Ramos infused Mr. Piranha with a ton of intense energy. Awkwafina is playing the type of sassy, street-smart chick she plays in most of her movies, but there’s a reason her brand is so hot right now: she’s great at what she does!
The performances are terrific and parents will appreciate its moral themes. However, what makes The Bad Guys worth a watch is its action set pieces. Perifel gives us a diverse assortment of thrills. There are car chases, complicated break-ins, classic espionage subterfuge, and even a surprisingly intense martial arts fight scene. Enhanced by a storybook-art style and sharp animation, even the fighting feels more fantastical than violent.
The Bad Guys is the perfect film to get younger viewers into crime flicks without the moral dilemma of having kids root for unrepentant criminals. While it wraps some of its more complex themes in childish packaging, the story is still a fitting reward for a grand heist.
The Bad Guys starting heisting your heart April 22 in theatres.