On paper, the premise of The Bad Guys sounds like pat, preachy children’s book material: A crew of creepy carnivores gives up a life of crime in favor of doing kind deeds. It boils down to the basic message telling kids to “be good.” Fortunately, Australian author Aaron Blabey imbued this concept with a Tarantino-esque style and sophistication that landed the titular children’s book series on the New York Times bestseller list and led to its adaptation into the witty, action-packed and surprisingly timely animated DreamWorks film opening this week.
The Bad Guys follows a gang of five universally feared animals: Wolf, Snake, Tarantula, Shark and Piranha (respectively voiced by Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina, Craig Robinson and Anthony Ramos). They’re thieves at large in an alternate Los Angeles where humans and anthropomorphic animals co-exist.
The film immediately makes older audiences feel at home with an existential diner discussion reminiscent of the one between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. It then launches into a zany, exciting car chase worthy of the Fast and Furious franchise. This sequence shows that French animator Pierre Perifel means business with his directorial feature debut.
After they screw up a big score and get caught, the Bad Guys (as the city calls them) swindle Governor Diane Foxington (voiced by Zazie Beetz) into letting them work with guinea-pig humanitarian Professor Marmalade (voiced by Richard Ayoade), who offers to help them become “the Good Guys” to avoid incarceration.
Although Wolf initially pitches this idea as a bargain for their freedom, you get the sense that he may truly enjoy the tingle of being good, which causes a quarrel between him and his lifelong friend, Snake. The heart of the film lies in their deep yet delicate relationship. Although they are both feared, Snake knows he will always have the smaller chance of being embraced by society — a poignant commentary on the simultaneous tenderness and tension between outcasts living on different margins.
The film is bracingly progressive in showing Governor Foxington rising from marginalization herself and publicly fighting to rehabilitate and destigmatize fellow outcasts.
Although Tarantula, Shark and Piranha all bring charm to the proceedings, the most engaging and emotionally hefty scenes involve Wolf, Snake and Governor Foxington. Rockwell and Maron bounce off each other beautifully, with the former constantly using Clooney-like charm to melt the latter’s icy heart. Maron draws upon his cranky, insecure persona without simply playing himself. But fans of the comedian and podcaster will certainly take pleasure in how Snake mirrors Maron as a guy grappling with bitterness and a fractured identity while also learning to appreciate his connection to others.
The film’s complexity can be credited to these vocal performances alongside Blabey’s source material, Perifel’s direction and the adaptation from screenwriter Etan Cohen. However, Cohen’s narrative structure is a bit flawed in how it lays out one character’s villainous turn in the third act. Let’s just say the villain gives themselves away in a manner that insults the city’s intelligence and goes against his own.
Although the film’s message is simple, it’s one people sadly still need to hear. After years of watching people actively harming others by supporting criminal political leaders and stubbornly refusing to help prevent the spread of a deadly virus, it’s refreshing to see a film about longtime bad guys learning to do good.