Review: ‘The Bad Guys’ Is DreamWorks’ Latest Pretty Good Toon

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The Bad Guys (2022)

Universal/rated PG/107 minutes

Directed by Pierre Perifel and written by Etan Cohen

Based on the novels by Aaron Blabey

Starring Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Anthony Ramos, Craig Robinson, Awkwafina, Richard Ayoade, Zazie Beetz, Lilly Singh and Alex Borstein

Editing by John Venzon and score by Daniel Pemberton

Opens theatrically on April 22

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DreamWorks Animation’s $80 million-budgeted The Bad Guys is another in a long line of “villains who don’t want to be villains or realize they’d be better off as heroes” animated adventures, standing with the likes of Shrek, Puss in Boots, Despicable Me, Megamind, Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia among others. It’s a fine formula for the realm of kid-targeted animation, as the confines of kid-friendly toons means the “bad guys” can’t commit deeds so foul that redemption is impossible, while the notions of people being able to change for the better, suffering from the circumstances of their upbringing and/or pushing back against their presumed destiny is a valuable lesson for developing minds. To paraphrase Rocky IV, if these cartoonish rascals can change, then kids may be less consigned to accept their own presumed roles and/or judge books by their cover.

The Bad Guys, loosely based upon Aaron Blabey’s increasingly fantastical series (they start as crime capers but escalate into bonkers-bananas sci-fi fantasies), understands the appeal of these stories and doesn’t try to do more than provide an entertaining example thereof. Pierre Perifel makes his feature directorial debut after years within the DWA system, crafting a bouncy, colorful and refreshingly even-keeled action comedy whose Etan Cohen-penned screenplay keeps the action frantic but the characters (mostly) comparatively grounded. The film opens with a robbery and high-speed chase that, along with taking place in Los Angeles, feels like Kidz Bop Ambulance, and I kinda mean that as a compliment. Our motley crew of anthropomorphic criminals is resting on their laurels when a goading from the governor (Zazie Beetz) convinces Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) to go for a needlessly high-risk score.

Slight first-act spoilers, but Mr. Wolf and his crew get caught. Off to jail they go, until an intervention from a local philanthropist (Richard Ayoade) offers these criminals a chance for a clean slate provided they respond to attempts at rehabilitation. Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina) presume that Mr. Wolf agrees only as part of a long con, but the ringleader starts to like what little taste he’s had of societal respect and admiration. The initial chase takes up the first reel, and frankly, the next forty minutes threaten to jog in place until the big reveal and climactic set-pieces. Even if you see certain twists coming, there is pleasure in terms of how the characters react and, no spoilers, don’t react.

This will not be the last time I find ramble about the level of quality and spectacle to which we’ve become accustomed in mainstream animation, and The Bad Guys is no exception. The film’s copious action sequences, especially the opening and closing vehicular mayhem, are a sight to behold and represent a successful hybrid of genre authenticity and larger-than-life animated elasticity. Not unlike what Michael Bay pulled off with drones in Universal’s other heist actioner current in theaters, this film’s camera goes here, there and everywhere with pinball lunacy that, again, I think we’ve come to take for granted as animation technology has evolved. However, what’s almost more impressive, considering this is a PG-rated talking animal toon, is the quality of the occasionally naturalistic voice acting and conversational dialogue. Rockwell and Beetz are especially good together in a sparring capacity.

If I’m being vague, it’s because quite a bit of what elevates The Bad Guys after its initial set-up occurs far enough into the third act that it would be considered spoiler-territory. But the film plays fair in terms of its pretzel storytelling while respecting its recent cinematic predecessors (the Ocean’s trilogy, Reservoir Dogs, The Italian Job, etc.). It’s not high art, but it’s completely entertaining four-quadrant fun. It sits alongside Abominable as DWA’s best non-sequel since, ironically, Megamind. It’s another riff on their favorite “I am not who I am destined to be!” theme (see also – Shrek, Madagascar, Turbo, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, etc.). As such, it may answer the elusive “What is a DreamWorks Animation film today?” question. The answer may merely be: Whatever it wants to be.

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