They’re literally called The Bad Guys. In a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-like world where anthropomorphized animals coexist with humans, these five creatures are dedicated to selfish villainy, usually in the form of theft. But to save themselves from prison, they’ll have to become… good guys.
Frankly, that premise sounds, well, cartoonishly moralistic. Thankfully, the movie resists the urge to sentimentalize or preach, and retains a classic cartoon sense of anarchy and even a touch of amorality. It doesn’t always work—like so many DreamWorks animated films, The Bad Guys forces in a musical number that’s a painful bore. But what it occasionally misses along the way, it makes up for in a grand finale that involves both clever narrative back-tracking and hordes of possessed guinea pigs.
As unimaginatively named as their gang, The Bad Guys consist of Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina). Like the Furious Five of the Kung Fu Panda films, they all have skills mostly tailored to their individual animal physiologies. The exception, perhaps, being Mr. Shark, who’s somehow a master of disguise; unlike Sylvester Stallone’s very similar King Shark in The Suicide Squad, this one actually can rock a fake mustache. And like the team in Ocean’s Eleven, a specific point of reference, they use their skills to stage heists, which they are generally very good at.
That is, until slick-talking leader Wolf accidentally does a good deed en route to stealing an expensive award, and finds his tail wagging uncontrollably with satisfaction. After botching the main job, he uses his fast-talking ways to convince the authorities that maybe his crew can redeem themselves—a lie that holds more truth than he’ll admit to himself. And so, under the supervision of insufferable philanthropist Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade), a guinea pig with an impeccable reputation, the former villains must at least pretend to become good. But sometimes acting a certain way on the outside can effect changes inside as well.
With its emphasis on gadget-enhanced heists, and ability to work them into the story even in the service of virtue rather than vice, The Bad Guys recalls the villain battles of Despicable Me. With its animal robbers and authority figures—the cops somehow remain all human—it brings Zootopia to mind. Wolf’s adversary/love interest Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), a vixen with a pierced eyebrow, will no doubt find as much favor with the Furry crowd as Judy Hopps before her.
Visually, though, The Bad Guys differs from all of those predecessors. Drawing inspiration from the source books by Aaron Blabey, as well as the not-quite-Los-Angeles of some Grand Theft Auto games, the movie’s landscapes look almost rotoscoped, while many of the main characters feel like stop-motion characters with hand-drawn facial expressions. Rupert Marmalade IV, however, like some of the intentionally cuter characters, would look right at home in an Illumination production. Yet references to the likes of Pulp Fiction, Speed, and World War Z feel calculated to ensure we feel real danger, however temporary. Rockwell’s Clooney-ish vocal stylings help set the tone, with Maron pushing his pipes in a gangster direction as second-in-command Snake. And as the preening Marmalade, Ayoade feels like a purposeful subversion of James Corden’s work with similar characters; he plays it as an annoying person trying to be nice, rather than a theoretically nice character who just comes off annoying.
Unusually for animation, The Bad Guys boasts only one primary credited screenwriter: Etan Cohen, a Mike Judge protégée who usually co-writes with others. “Additional screenplay material” is attributed to Ice Age sequel scribe Yoni Brenner and Community/My Name Is Earl alumnus Hilary Winston. The confusing credits may explain the uneven nature of the story overall, which suffers from pacing issues—about an hour in, for example, it feels like we’re already headed for the big climax. Instead, there’s a time-wasting song.
But once the possessed guinea pigs come along, it’s impossible to be too mad at The Bad Guys. Unless, perhaps, the film’s relatively neutral stance on animal testing vis-a-vis said guinea pigs is a trigger. And following that… did you really just see a twist that was not 100 percent predictable? Yes. Yes, you did. And a fart joke that actually serves a plot function? Well played.
Should this film prove a hit, the book series it draws inspiration from offers plenty more to adapt, roping in aliens and extra-dimensional beings. But like the Despicable Me series, The Bad Guys may find ever-diminishing returns once the villain protagonists no longer qualify as despicable or bad. For now, at least, that mixed morality is not just part of the fun, but the primary selling point.