2022 is quickly shaping up into another rather exciting year for the realm of animation. Strictly as an art form, and not just a “genre” of film. If one were to demand proof that the former still bears more than an ounce of truth, best to look no further than the talents at DreamWorks. Granted, yes, they’ve been in a mild slump as of late (Spirit Untamed, Boss Baby 2 for example). And we’ve seen rather consistently even the les sparkling of cartoon houses can generate an unexpected winner when the iron’s most hot. With their newest, The Bad Guys, the iron’s leaving holes in the floor. The level of inventive creativity is, for the sake of avoiding hyperbole, quite possibly a new high for the Glendale, CA based mischief makers, one not seen so powerfully since the combined weight of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. It takes some bravery to make a film off of a well-received literary franchise, make it as slick as Tarantino or Soderbergh, but keep the mood light and unashamedly cuddly. They pull off just that, for quite the giddy, if not also slightly predictable, experience.
First-time director Pierre Perifel and screenwriter Etan Cohen (Holmes and Watson) were assigned simply to go gangbusters with Aaron Blabley’s series of children’s books. And they lived up to that expectation with every aspect. And in particular, a very skilled set of leads knowing just how to defy the worn-out trend of “animated stunt casting.” There’s Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), the leader; Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), the tight corner specialist; Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), the disguise artist; Miss Tarantula (Awkwafina), the computer expert; and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), the short fuse. All of whom are well versed in classic thievery, their system for robbing banks and other business often quick, merciless, and grandiose. And in this society where animals and humans co-exist in balanced neutrality, even the human police are grasping at straws to capture them.
All their experience could never predict the outcome of their latest heist, stealing the coveted Golden Dolphin award trophy before it’s presented to Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), a guinea pig philanthropist credited for healing his town after a meteorite soured its reputation. It does not go well, they’re captured, and Mr. Wolf schmoozes his way into a deal with Marmalade, with the goal of criminal rehabilitation. New state governor Diane (Zazie Beetz) is keeping a watchful eye on the five, as he sees an avenue to finish the job while pretending to go along with the cause for reform. At least, until his judgment is clouded by the idea of fighting for good, putting him at odds versus his colleagues.
And perhaps that is an underlying theme Blabley’s visually captivating novels could share with a number of the inherent influences Perifel rolls with. Think a kid-friendly mix between Pulp Fiction, Mean Streets, Out of Sight, and whatever intellect exists with the Fast and Furious series. That combination blended with Perifel’s art palette casts a tight net for speed and zaniness, stamped by a leitmotif bridging comic strip art (namely Schultz, Uderzo, and Franquin), with Toriyama-esque facial expressions. Far less polished as opposed to any of the more refined CG works of last year, but most fitting with that dingy criminal undertone and the unpredictable pace that follows, leaving editor John Venzon (Storks) with an effusive workout.
While The Bad Guys technically is a family film, its approach to deeper beats of morality stunted in doses, what Perifel captures still chimes in resonance. Specifically on the meaning of being bad, over being evil. Quite the fine line being explored the further we go discovering this crew of urban furry bandoliers. Most animated films will try, and often fail, to cover the mindset of pure evil. Without giving much away, I was shocked just what the DreamWorks brain trust could run off with, while staying a trifle shallow. A very precarious situation, balanced out by a myriad of set pieces elevating the figurative game. That alone is Cohen’s sweet spot, nimbly upping the stakes without consideration for recompense.
Such a challenge does plenty to keep Perifel’s cast well on their toes. Difficult not to imagine them in the recording booth balancing their energy above their heels, as each brings something different to the buffet, often something missing from their live action resumes. Rockwell’s casual slyness is nothing new, he’s always had swagger-ish glimmer for years. It’s only now he can finally apply that to an animated part best suiting his strengths. Note that G-Force, regrettably, does not count in this equation. His chemistry with Beetz lights up a few sparks, but the bromance angle he shares with Maron’s snake is significantly more palpable, covering laughs and sneers with their clash of ethics.
Both Robinson and Awkwafina serve their roles with class and bounce, and Ayoade was a genuine surprise broadening his comfort zone with that iconic voice. Alex Borstein as the chief of police may have been a small throwaway, but her gruffness still cuts through. And Ramos’s pint-size fish, in often the littlest of ways, stole the show, with a handful of gags, and by way of excuse, an original song. A conduit by which Daniel Pemberton’s enigmatic score, exploring hard jazz, rock and pop, mushrooms into something special for the moment, if not the year.
The missed opportunities Perifel seems to ensue could take up half a page of notes. The meteorite subplot connects rather messily, the third act climax does slow the momentum down a touch, and there’s little gasping room on the manner of character flaws. A film about mostly antagonists going outside their depth should be fair game for that trope. However, I know I could not deny the ebullient energy this film could possess with the right crowd on a big screen. A film like The Bad Guys demands those conditions to really allow its wall of convergence to land down. Its eye popping visuals, appropriately flattered cast, and blissful noise would be done a disservice elsewhere. A real mixed bag, of the fun kind, of the easily reachable kind. Like I knew I wasn’t ready for the journey to conclude, given what was left behind. All of this, on point for DreamWorks’ creative strategy, once more crafting an honest crowd-winner. Even I’ll admit, that has been missed. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
The Bad Guys opens in theaters April 22; rated PG for action and rude humor; 100 minutes.