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'The Bad Guys' Review: Going Good Is Never Easy
How easily does it fit into Dreamworks Animation's catalog?
Current Cinema: It's always a pleasure to watch an animated movie on a big screen with good sound, especially when you are the sole viewer in the auditorium.
I was reminded of this distinctive pleasure early this afternoon when I visited my local Alamo Drafthouse and discovered that I was the only ticket-buyer present for the screening. No kids! No disruptive adults! No talking! Bliss!
The only thing that would have made the experience better? If The Bad Guys was better than average.
Then again, I wasn't expecting a masterpiece. Produced by Dreamworks Animation and released by Universal, The Bad Guys fits the mold that the studio established with its first film, Antz in 1998: very well animated and entirely familiar, like Disney, except not as good.
To be fair, Dreamworks Animation's first few productions, including Antz, sought to lay the groundwork as a worthy competitor with a target audience that was a bit older than Disney, though younger than Pixar as it was establishing its artistic identity: The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Chicken Run suggested a more ambitious agenda.
Shrek (2001) marked a major shift in fortunes, with greater success, cementing a reliance on big-name voice actors and a snarky sense of humor that revolved around disrespect for authority. It's easy enough to identify Shrek as revenge by co-studio founder Jeffrey Katzenberg against his former bosses at Disney, but revenge is sweet, according to the film world's standards, and Shrek made big bucks.
Since then, it's been 20 years of Shrek-like films, with an emphasis on franchise-starters to help the studio further develop its marketing efforts. The films have often been finely-animated and perfectly acceptable for juvenile audiences and young adults who enjoy the relentless mocking of tropes and characters, even more than any whiff of originality.
In recent years, there have been a few exceptions, most notably Abominable (2019), a product of Chinese animation firm Pearl Studios, which went on to make the excellent Over the Moon (2020), released by Netflix.
Scholastic Entertainment, the folks behind Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) are also behind The Bad Guys, since they published the children's picture book series by Australian actor turned author Aaron Blabey, first published in 2015. Etan Coen (Tropic Thunder) wrote the screenplay; trade publication Deadline pointed out that his roots stretched back to animated fare such as American Dad and included scripting for Dreamworks Animation (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa).
Coen captures what can only be described as Dreamworks Animation's 'house style,' especially the continuous mocking of authority figures. It also follows past fare, such as Shrek and A Shark's Tale, by patterning itself in a narrative that is reminiscent of big hits.
The most obvious comparison here is Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's 11 and its sequels, light-hearted caper films that are more interested in making criminal characters who are more likable, more clever and more stylish than everyone else so that we, the audience, finds it easy to cheer them on as they steal from the undeservedly rich and powerful. The pattern continued in Gary Ross' gender-flipped Ocean's Eight (2018), which featured Awkafina, whose distinctively smoky voice is readily apparent as Tarantula, a member of The Bad Guys.
She is not the lead, however. That distinction goes to Sam Rockwell, whose unassuming, smoky voice can also be heard in Dreamworks Animation's Trolls 2: World Tour (2020). Rockwell voices Wolf, who leads a long-time criminal gang of thieves that also includes the imaginatively named Snake (Marc Maron), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos).
They want to pull off "one last caper" so as to ensure that their names will live forever. When they are caught, however, in front of Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), Wolf maneuvers things so that they are given "one last chance" to turn to doing good under the training of the award-winning Professor Marmalade (Richard Aoyoade). Waiting for them to return to their wicked ways is Police Chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), who can't wait to send them to jail.
Based in a world in which talking animals and talking humans mix freely, The Bad Guys is not tethered to any sort of reality, which allows director Pierre Perifel free flight toward all sorts of delirious action sequences. Perifel is a Dreamworks Animation veteran and he is well versed in the studios's style back, reflected in the emphasis on lovable characters in ridiculous situations that rarely stray close to authentically human emotional experiences.
Within its limited parameters, The Bad Guys is perfectly fine animated entertainment that kept me awake throughout its running time, though I cannot discount the cup of coffee that I drank during its third act. [Dreamworks Animation]