Some animals are easier to love than others, whether they deserve it or not. Who doesn’t want to hug beavers, even though they are the cruelest killers in the animal kingdom? Washington, DC, is a panda love bastion, ignoring the fact that they are basically clumsy furballs that are so stupid that they have to be coaxed into breeding. And of course: Everyone loves Flipper’s tweets, until… well, Google’s “gang of male dolphins” – not just on your work computer.
“The Bad Guys” look at animals that make us want to scream, screech and smack them and ask why that is. Based on a series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, this animated comedy follows a group of animal criminals who are having fun stealing things. The leader of the group is Wolf (voice of Sam Rockwell, continuing his quest to improve any film by at least 10%).
The wolf is basically Danny Ocean with a tail. In fact, much of “The Bad Guys” is a nod, wink, and push to “Ocean’s 11,” right down to the storytelling, visual style, and some very specific gags: Wolf puts motion in the female fox by being “full of Clooney.” In this fantasia like California, the majority of the population is human, while the main protagonists are animals. And some of them are species that shouldn’t be able to walk or breathe oxygen. Just get on with it.
Wolf’s companions are the ruthless Snake (Marc Maron); master of disguise Shark (Craig Robinson); Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a fish with anger management problems; and tech whiz Tarantula (Awkwafina). They were at the top of their game when the movie started. People are so afraid of them that they can simply walk into the bank of their choice, point at the money and walk out without threatening anyone. Life is good.
Of course, every heist movie requires one last job, and this one targets the award given to the nicest creature in the state – in this case, a guinea pig named Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). Wolf and the rest of the gang want to get their names into the criminal hall of fame by snatching trophies. The theft was wrong, of course, and the gang ended up on the receiving end of Marmalade’s rehab instinct, with professors like Henry Higgins betting that he could remake these bad guys into model citizens.
This film answers an interesting question: Why are bad people bad? They had no choice, according to Wolf. Every story has a villain: the snake in the Garden of Eden, the great white in “Jaws,” the wolf in “The Three Little Pigs.” What’s the point of trying to get on someone’s good side? It doesn’t matter how good a tarantula is; every time he appeared, people started looking for a heavy book to flatten him. Maybe money from fear too.
Still, when Wolf learned more about the benefits of being kind, he liked it. It opens a rift between him and his old henchmen, and he finally has to make a choice. The animations – especially during the abundant action sequences, and especially during car chases – are sharp, fast, and beautiful to watch. As in the “Ocean’s” films, there were some fine edits that brought the film’s sophistication to life despite a few mistakes.
Case in point: The wolf, like other furry characters, has a very blurry body, but the rendering of his face is so smooth, it looks like he’s gone a little too far with Instagram filters. DreamWorks Animation is known for taking shortcuts when compared to, say, Pixar: It’s easier and faster to create facial expressions if you don’t have to worry about every mustache. But it was terrible.
There is also a lack of emotion in the protagonist’s eyes. Uniformly excellent voice acting helps offset that, but the cast can only do so much. The moral of the story doesn’t take a huge hit. Not because it’s necessary. We can’t all be “Encanto.” However, it is clever, visually appealing and very, very funny. Even when the humor is low-key, it makes narrative sense.
The flatulence joke is much funnier when it’s important to the plot. “The Bad Guys” understood that. Actually, “The Bad Guys” got a lot of it. He knew exactly what it was – and what he wanted to do, he did well. This is a heist film with heart and humor, and where is the crime?