Years ago, NBC offered up reruns by explaining, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” The same sort of notion is present in DreamWorks Animation’s latest, “The Bad Guys.” Rather than just recycling an old episode though, what has happened here is a recycling of ideas with the hope that the intended audience of kids hasn’t seen them before.
Based on the book series by Aaron Blabey and directed by Pierre Perifel, this is a heist film aimed squarely at a pre-teen set. It offers up every twist and turn one has come to expect from the genre and none are presented in terribly engaging fashion. The movie seems aware that it exists within an established genre, even providing a momentary George Clooney reference that adults may get a kick out of, however the script (IMDb credits the screenplay to Etan Cohen with “additional screenplay material by” Yoni Brenner and Hilary Winston) still doesn’t care to separate itself from the mold on a narrative level.
No, instead what we are treated to is the tale of a gang of criminals named, sort of “Reservoir Dogs”/”Pulp Fiction” style—Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Mark Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos)—having to pretend like they’re going to be good in order to pull of a super crime only to maybe decide that they want to be good except that… well, you get the idea. Things don’t go quite as planned (or do they?) and twist after twist after twist pile on one another in what feels more like a massive car accident than a plot.
Because the movie can’t succeed without a potential love interest, the Governor comes into play. Voiced by Zazie Beetz, Diane Foxington runs the unnamed state and takes the bad guys away from Police Chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), when they could just be sent to jail and save us all a lot of time. Foxington, prompted by Mr. Wolf, gives them to Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), a smarmy little guinea pig who has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, convincing them that he’s a good guy, so that he can try to reform our anti-heroes. From the moment the audience meets Marmalade, it’s clear that he’s anything but good and yet no one else in the film seems to recognize as much.
In lieu of a tale that will surprise or delight many of those watching, “The Bad Guys” instead offers a loud, hyperkinetic feel, hoping that it’s own feigned enthusiasm will substitute for yours. Things are shouted at the audience; the music blares; the fast-talking, wise-cracking Mr. Wolf wants you (yes, you – he breaks the fourth wall) to know exactly how clever he is being even when he isn’t. He is indeed Danny Ocean, just without the charm.
Heck, Mr. Wolf even looks great. In its best moments, “The Bad Guys” offers up a cel-shaded feel and is a wonder to behold. Other sequences are more flat, but the standout moments truly are just that.
Rather than simply careening from one thing to the next, the movie hydroplanes, never breaking the surface and gaining the traction offered up by firm ground. It would not be apt to say the movie steers into the skid, but it does sort of go along with it, happy to power through until it crosses the finish line.
To be sure, the affair has its moments—Ramos’s Piranha getting a chance to sing during a gala is wonderful—but they are few and far between. The idea behind “The Bad Guys” is a clever one, and perhaps the books carry through on it in better fashion, but the shouty, abrasive, nature that is so often present in the film is a disappointment. Rather than hiding its innate flaws, the approach pushes the viewer further away, putting the issues into stark relief.
There is, it must be noted, nothing horribly offensive about “The Bad Guys.” It is, instead, a forgettable attempt at taking a concept a wide swath of audience members enjoy (in this case, the heist film) and spinning it into a yarn for a kids. It ignores so much that could be interesting (a meteor devastated the city a year before these events?!? How is there no evidence of this having occurred save a news report?!?), chooses the path of least resistance, and still has a desire to steamroll everything that might be in its way.
photo credit: Universal Pictures