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The Bad Guys

(SPOILERS) Wow. I didn’t expect this. Having, of late, been disabused of any expectations of quality Hollywood animated movies, thanks to the combined efforts of Disney and Pixar (the same entity, really, but let’s split the difference), The Bad Guys comes as a breath of fresh air. It’s a welcome reminder of what the art form can accomplish when it’s allowed a little freedom to move and hasn’t been agendised to within an inch of its life.

Mr Wolf: The bad guys become the good guys. So we can stay the bad guys, y’know what I mean?

It’s a DreamWorks production too. While their animations started out with pep and verve (Shrek, Madagascar), offering an irreverent variant on the CGI “purity” Pixar was offering, and occasionally impressing with a movie that might have slotted into that more venerated studio’s roster (How to Train Your Dragon), they much more quickly became slave to the formula-driven sequel train. I may have missed a gem over the past five years – I doubt it – since I no longer take a look at everything they’ve done, but their last effort that genuinely impressed me was Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Which wasn’t, perhaps not coincidentally, considered a great success.

Mr. Shark: Maybe we could be more than just scary villains?

The Bad Guys is, however (a success). Albeit, the metric of release windows and streaming is now less immediately tangible, so a sequel is, at this point, a wait-and-see. I don’t think it needs one; none of the previous DreamWorks animations cried out for them, and the legacy of at least one (Shrek) suffered due to subpar follow ups. The immediate element that impresses with this one is the stylistically distinct CG animation. Such talk surrounds a new release every so often, and you’re invariably left thinking, “Nah”. Offhand, the only movie of late to deserve such an innovative laurel is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I can’t help wonder if its shot in the arm engendered the confidence to let Pierre Perifel do his own thing here.

Tiffany Fluffit: Tonight’s headline – change is impossible. You can judge a book by its cover. And all stereotypes have been confirmed.

I wasn’t aware of Aaron Blabey’s graphic novel series (comprising fifteen volumes since 2015 so far), but it’s easy to see how Perifel took inspiration from the them, with their emphasis on frame-filling, expressive characters and granting the dialogue its own presence (of equal weight to the image). Here, the distinctive anthropomorphic character design, penchant for exaggerated movement and eccentric framing combine to lend The Bad Guys an infectious pop vibrancy. The key is possibly Perifel’s 2D animation background; 3D too often seems to encourage homogeneity of approach, but The Bad Guys is bursting with energy: zippy, sparky and punchy, keen to explore the freedom of the form.

Plus, they’ve brought Daniel Pemberton on board (he previously scored Into the Spider-Verse), delivering a delightful ’70s-heist/crime movie riff; score and visuals are a perfect complement to each other, absolutely what you want from a movie like this (DreamWorks have always allied the soundtrack to their animations in a BIG way, but there’s also been a tendency towards the lazy shortcut; any poptastic choice will do, so stump up for the rights, and they’re away).

Mr Snake: At least he sees the world for what it is. Where some people are scary. And some people are scared.

The other vital ingredient is the vocal performances, and in particular, Sam Rockwell as Mr Wolf. Too often, animations – and again, particularly so with DreamWorks – have led with “star” vocal casting over great vocal performances, but Rockwell is an enormous boon as Mr Wolf. He’s probably their best casting since the double punch of Murphy and Myers in the first Shrek (I know; it’s the exception that proves the rule of star vocal casting). It won’t happen, but an Oscar nomination wouldn’t be out of place, so perfectly does his smooth, chatty, confidential tone inform the picture (particularly funny is Mr Wolf being told, as he puts on a charm offensive, “Do not Clooney me, Wolf”).

His gang aren’t quite as commanding, but that’s probably as it should be. I’m guessing it’s a terrible admission, since he had his own sitcom, but I wasn’t familiar with Marc Maron; his disgruntled, downbeat safe-cracker Mr Snake (“Imagine Houdini, but with no arms”) more than holds his own against Rockwell’s Mr Wolf, which he needs to as the team’s major source of conflict when their leader gets the bug to turn good. Awkwafina blends into the team, rather than grandstanding, as tech genius Ms Tarantula. Craig Robinson plays slightly slow on the uptake as master-of-disguise Mr Shark (“His greatest trick, stealing the Mona Lisa, disguised as the Mona Lisa”), while Anthony Ramos is memorable as the muscle, fiery-tempered Mr Piranha.

Mr Wolf: Do I wish people didn’t see us as monsters? Sure I do. But those are the cards we’ve been dealt, so we may as well play them.

There are numerous solid plays of gleefully bad behaviour during the first half of the movie; the “bad guys turn good” premise had me wanting to gnaw my leg off at the prospect of sentiment-laden, empty moralising. The truth is, though, The Bad Guys never becomes bogged down in its conceit; the gang don’t suddenly lose their edge(s), and there are twists enough to make the lesson agreeably developed, even if, at heart, it’s a simple “Don’t judge by appearances” motif.

Professor Rupert Marmalade IV: But how can you say they’re hopeless if they’ve never been given a chance?

Professor Rupert Marmalade IV makes for a direct, but inverted proof of concept; his guinea pig is all sweetness and magnanimity concealing his dark underbelly. Although, the early reference “Some have described your goodness as second only to Mother Teresa” is devastatingly appropriate and ought to have been an alarm bell. Richard Ayoade is providing a very Richard Ayoade take on the character – who is markedly different from the books – but is there any other Richard Ayoade? It turns out the professor has engaged in remarkably fluent emotional manipulation, banking on his impressing the Bad Guys (or Mr Wolf) into working towards a second chance and rehabilitation that will see them denounced and blamed when he pulls of his heist. Obviously, there’s a lesson there about blind faith in those who wear the paraphernalia of virtue (like Mother Teresa).

Diane Foxington: What have you got to lose?
Mr Wolf: I don’t know, my dignity?

While The Bad Guys has a message, it’s notably and mercifully lacking an abundance of messaging. About the worst you can say of it is that Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) is even better at what she does than the guys, which is the standard Hollywood play right now. But since this is in the comedy arena, and such reveals go way back (Madame Clouseau in The Pink Panther, for example), it doesn’t feel overly forced, give or take a “You feel like a girls’ trip?” (Mr Piranha wants to go too). In contrast to the graphic novels, Diane turns out to be best criminal evah the Crimson Paw; as such, she lacks the quirks of the other main characters, but that’s the price to be paid for thumping a tub, however lightly.

Professor Rupert Marmalade IV: That’s my stolen money!

The key to such dictated elements failing to take is a refusal to let them supplant irreverence, and The Bad Guys consistently revels in the latter. This isn’t an anthropomorphic world where the animals all live in tolerance of each other, and if the ramifications of an arena where they live and converse alongside humans yet there are also animal testing labs aren’t so much sidestepped as completely ignored, it’s a consistent source of hilarity to see Mr Snake’s dedication to consumption. “Okay fine, but he better be delicious” he grudgingly comments of Rupert’s presence at their opening gala heist. “I’ve never seen him so chipper” observes Mr Piranha as Mr Snake enters a lab full of guinea pigs, ostensibly to set them free; the subsequent sight gag (Mr Snake stuffed full of them) is a classic.

Mr Snake: Wolf gave away all our loot! We stole it fair and square!

Elsewhere, Perifel supplies swift successions of visual one-liners and flourishes, from Mr Snake leaving his skin/disguised behind in a ventilation shaft, to Mr Shark’s “amazing” disguise at the lab (“Dad?” asks the bewildered security guy). Mr Piranha engages in an impromptu song-and-dance routine. The heist/explanations thereof are fast paced and intricate (“The old switcheroo!”), and there’s a profusion of decent puns (“Assault with a Deadly Reptile”). The action sequences – especially any car chases – are also superbly, crazily choreographed.

Mr Snake: It’s got everything. Betrayal. A meteor. Mind control.

The screenplay is credited to Etan Cohen, who has a patchy record; there’s Tropic Thunder on the plus side, but he failed to come up with the goods when he segued into direction with Get Hard and Holmes & Watson. He does have reasonable prior form for animation, though (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), and if The Bad Guys’ McGuffin is frankly bizarre, involving as it does stealing a meteorite with an “electromagnetic frequency unlike anything on Earth” that is “the ultimate power source”, it doesn’t get too much in the way. One nevertheless can’t help but wonder at the background to the choice of premise, whereby “Last year, we faced our biggest test when a meteorite crashed into our city”. Aside from reinforcing NASA science along with Darwinian theory (“Evolution set you up”).

Diane Foxington: The truth is, I’m really–
Mr Wolf: Really a big fan, of redemption arcs.

But chalk me up as a fan of The Bad Guys. Just when you’re despairing at the prospect of ever seeing unreconstituted cinema again, this comes along and gives you faith. If there’s any justice, everyone in town will be hammering down Perifel’s door demanding he work for them, carte blanche, tout suite.

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