July 15th, 2015, saw the release of Aaron Blabey’s kids book “The Bad Guys: Episode 1.” It introduced the world to Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, and Mr. Shark and their quest to shift how the world sees them from Bad Guys to Good Guys. Now, 15 books later, after a variety of adventures trying to reframe their reputation, the rascals jump to the big screen in the DreamWorks adaptation The Bad Guys, helmed by Pierre Perifel (Monsters vs. Aliens) in his feature-length directorial debut, with a script by Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder), Yoni Brenner (Rio 2), and Hilary Winston (The LEGO Ninjago Movie), as well as cavalcade of star-powered vocal talents. With a gob of My Fair Lady (1964), a dash of Pulp Fiction (1994), a smidge of Mission: Impossible (1996), a dollop of Ocean’s 11 (2001), and a solid helping of Zootopia (2016), The Bad Guys becomes a charm-wrapped lesson that you can be anything you want to be, it’s never too late to change, and doing right by your friends is better than doing wrong to your enemies.
In an alternate Los Angeles lives a gang of characters that society wrote off, but who found a home with each other: Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Snake (Marc Maron), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos). Much to the chagrin of Police Chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein) and Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), these five, called The Bad Guys, have yet to be captured despite committing many thefts, burglaries, pinches, and assorted felonies throughout the years. That is, until something goes wrong at their latest heist involving local philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), and the shackles come down…except what makes the Bad Guys who they are is their ability to adapt and Wolf inspires Marmalade, in all his goodness, to take them on as his latest project with a caveat: either they become Good Guys or they go to jail.
The aforementioned cast? They totally nail their parts, bringing some magnetism to a collection of societal ne’er-do-wells who take no greater joy than in taking what they want. With their vocal power behind the animation, the characters shift from being the stone cold menaces we expect into a group of lovable scamps we want to take home and cuddle with. (Yes, even and especially Shark.) We get this in the opening sequence which offers a chance for each character artistically and actor vocally to get a moment to shine, allowing us to be wowed by their respective gifts. The film is vibrant, yet grounded; highly fanciful, yet realistic; and highly animated, yet constricted by a set of rules. The exuberance of the opening should be the high point of most films before coming down for the bulk before the “big showdown” toward the finale, except The Bad Guys maintains the same level of fun in each sequence following, whether in another heist or training exercise. Most of this is because each one is designed with the characters in mind and not a joke, thereby allowing the humor to come naturally. Let the cast do their thing, the jokes come. If there is any kind of issue at all with the cast performances, it’s a minute problem (and barely that). For most of the film, I was convinced that Snake was voiced by Willem Dafoe, not Marc Maron. I’ve heard Maron’s stand-up and seen him as an actor. I didn’t recognize his voice in the slightest and the dissonance was distracting.
What’s not distracting at all is the animation, which is a balanced combination of 3D and 2D. One might be so simple as to refer to this as the “Spider-Verse Affect,” but I’d argue that it’s a way to include the more wild and emotive energy of Blabey’s art with traditional animation while also offering a more heightened reality for the world the story inhabits. This is a world in which there are humans, regular animals, and anthropomorphic animals (which no one bats an eye at), so channeling the untamed spirit of the books into the cinematic edition makes a great deal of sense. Like Spider-Verse, the animation style is specific and purposeful. In that film, the animation sought to evoke aspects of comic books like Ben-Day Dots, bleeding inks, character panels, and other tiny details. In The Bad Guys, it means a shift in texture between the clothes Mr. Wolf wears and his fur; the color palette used to define the look of each Bad Guy is a shade brighter or darker than normal, while everything else is as expected (notice how the crew looks in comparison to the steely black of Mr. Wolf’s car); the inanimate appears grounded in visual appeal and construction, while the characters’ same considerations are amped up just a bit to appear on a different frequency than everything else (notice how Mr. Wolf and PC Luggins stand out compared to the city behind them). Theirs a prominent slickness to the whole of The Bad Guys, a style that equals its substance due to its direct specificity.
Skipping over the cast (awesome) and script (fairly predictable but fun), let’s talk about the central theme of The Bad Guys and how well they pull this off. The idea, more or less, is that society sees Wolf and Company as bad guys, so that’s who they became. It felt too hard to try to change minds and was easier to lean into expectations. When the characters are not discussing it amongst themselves, the script brings in reporter Tiffany Fluffit (Lilly Singh) to offer color commentary and, essentially, make sweeping statements about how one should always judge another by their looks and that no one ever really changes. Of course, the inclusion of Fluffit is meant as comedy and as a way to offer a punchline to a sequence, but it’s also significant in how her words impact the characters themselves and possibly the audience. The Bad Guys is all about whether or not a group of excellent thieves who’ve formed a supportive family possess within themselves the ability to put others before themselves. It’s a hard ask after a life of persecution (according the various backstories the audience is given) that they should change how they engage with a world that has given up on them. So I find it interesting that, ultimately, the choice of change, within the subtext of the film, is about foregoing what others want or expect from you and seeking out what you want for yourself (reframed without the larceny). So should we take the various statements by Fluffit as truth? No. But we should be ready to discuss with our kids why what Fluffit is saying is wrong and offer some guidance on media literacy. The books are aged at grades 2-5, so it’s certainly not too early to be having serious discussions with your kids about (a) what being “good” really means and (b) why people on tv aren’t always to be trusted. When my eldest was in kindergarten, he took a media literacy course as part of the regular curriculum, but it didn’t go as deep as one might want. The Bad Guys, intentionally or not, provides a great opportunity to start having some in-depth conversations about media consumption.
But you didn’t come to this review looking for proclamations of 21st Century education recommendations, you want to know if The Bad Guys will entertain your kids for 100 minutes.
Absolutely, it will. Not only that, but it’ll entertain you, too. It may not sweep you off your feet, but it’ll certainly charm your socks off.
In theaters April 22nd, 2021.
For more information, head to the official DreamWorks The Bad Guys website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.