The Bad Guys
Is it just me, or had DreamWorks slipped under the radar a little over the past decade?
Even though Disney and Pixar were also on slightly rocky terrain sometimes during then, DreamWorks usually churned out some animated films that still did their job fine but haven't made a splash the same way these two did. Sometimes, it still made a splash thanks to sequels of such classic franchises as Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. But outside of that, I couldn't have thought of any significant DreamWorks tentpole to think of. In addition, I believe that Universal purchasing DreamWorks a couple of years ago might also have added to its complications.
However, I can't think of a bigger surprise hit from DreamWorks or an animated movie readier for a sequel than The Bad Guys.
As the posters and trailers would show you, this movie is about a band of criminals who made a name for themselves in infamy with their continuous crime spree in Los Angeles. The gang consisted of a sensitive shark, an irritable yet gassy piranha, a tech-savvy tarantula, a committed snake, and their leader, a charismatic and scheming wolf. Then, one day, they all set out to steal a prized trophy, the Golden Dolphin award, which was about to be awarded to a guinea pig named Rupert Marmalade IV. One of their objectives was to sneak their way past the city governor, a fox named Diane Foxington. They especially had to avoid catching the attention of a rampaging policewoman named Misty Luggins, who had been hot on their tails for a long time. While sneaking in, Mr. Wolf attempted to steal an old lady's purse, full of diamonds and jewelry, just for the heck of it. But what happened as he did so? The old lady was about to fall, and Mr. Wolf, holding onto her purse, inadvertently held onto her with the purse and saved her from falling. The old lady then thanked Mr. Wolf and told him he was a 'good boy' for saving her life. It shook Mr. Wolf to the core, and since then, he started to continuously question his tendencies to commit crimes despite feeling confident in his plans to steal the trophy and solidify the gang's criminal reputation. Sure, they succeeded in stealing the award, but they were caught in the act just before they fled.
But just as they were about to be thrown into the police car, Rupert stopped them and pleaded to the police, with Diane's begrudging compliance, to give Mr. Wolf and the gang a chance at rehabilitating themselves into society. It began Mr. Wolf's quest to prove himself as a good guy, even though he told his friends that he orchestrated this as Plan B for their theft of the Golden Dolphin trophy. However, the more Mr. Wolf practiced his humanitarian acts, the more they started influencing his peers. Diane, who cautiously checked up on Mr. Wolf and the gang to see that they were up to no good, began to develop feelings for him. Yet, this put him at odds with his pursuits and friends, who all expressed mixed feelings over his and their newfound moral compasses, especially Mr. Snake, who was the most committed to the gang's criminal reputation.
Much like How to Train Your Dragon, The Bad Guys was based on a series of children's books written by Aaron Blabely. Even though I haven't read any of them, the idea of a band of bad guys trying to prove themselves as good guys while resisting the urge to do wrong again felt guaranteed to bring on the laughs. The way I saw it, the humor felt most apparent in the animation. Unlike Dreamworks' many animated films before it, this film utilized a blend of 3D animation to convey its atmosphere and movements and 2D animation to hone the look and comical aesthetic. For years, I was used to watching DreamWorks releasing 3D-animated films to a point where I got acquainted with the usual style and the look they would've used for their films. But with this film, they aimed for a technique that emulated the mid-20th-century cartoony feel and a color palette that I feel helped lend it its pulpy style.
For example, look at Los Angeles. Since this is a family film, you'd expect it to be extra colorful in the hopes of looking visually attractive to, at least, little kids. Instead, the movie portrayed Los Angeles as being very bright and yellow. When it was daytime, it was sunny to a point where most of the colors felt generally muted. This was an unusual direction for the animators to take with the movie's environmental portrayals, but it still paid off.
This aesthetic applied to the characters, too. Mr. Snake looked like he excelled at his hand in the crimes he committed, making him resemble the skillful criminal you'd recognize from noir tales. But at the same time, his design called me back to such characters as Kaa from The Jungle Book and Sir Hiss from Robin Hood. However, some of the animation with its characters seemed a bit off, like with Diane Foxington. Unlike Nick from Zootopia, who felt more like a proper anthropomorphic fox, Diane felt more like a human being, but with fur and a fox head. Something about her design made her look more like an Egyptian goddess than it meant to. But thankfully, that was the only part of the animation that felt off. From the environment to the characters, the rest of the animation felt large, sophisticated, and colorful enough to feel a tad playful underneath its more mature-ish demeanor.
The characters, I truly believe, were what made this movie. They all carried the film through with their sly impersonations and surprisingly layered personalities. Mr. Wolf was the brains behind the Bad Guys' criminal routines. But his unexpected acts of humanitarianism put him at a crossroads as he had to find out what mattered most to him, whether it was to help his friends and continue upholding their underhanded deeds or turn over a new leaf and re-enter society as a new wolf. Mr. Snake felt like the most dedicated and unpredictable of his companions. Having been Mr. Wolf's closest friend for years, he took their criminal legacy to heart. So, he always had to remind Mr. Wolf of why the five of them signed up for the rehabilitation program in the first place, even if Mr. Wolf started having second thoughts about it. Ms. Tarantula generally didn't express herself very much in the movie, but she did spice up the scenarios with some humorous wisecracks every once in a while. And when she whipped out her laptops and USB drives—jeez!—she proved herself as a fast-paced, dextrous wizard who could've hacked into the systems to disable the alarm systems. Mr. Shark, despite his bulky, threatening demeanor, generally seemed like the most innocent of the gang. But that didn't stop him from distracting others with his disguises, a good portion of which led to some satisfactory and generally hilarious outcomes. Mr. Pirahna easily felt like the most agitated member of the gang, almost always complaining about specific people or situations. But whereas many characters would've eaten when they're nervous, he usually farted when he was nervous. And I will say, when I first saw him in the movie, he immediately felt like he carried a resemblance to the general hotheaded guys you'd see Joe Pesci play, like in GoodFellas.
Now, I thought the supporting characters were generally a mixed bag. They all had some exciting things going on with them, but they also felt backtracked by some of their weaker or more predictable elements.
The guinea pig, Rupert IV, was a slightly annoying, sometimes syrupy guy who upheld his reputation as the humanitarian of Los Angeles. But without giving anything away, let's say that his decision to have the bad guys undergo a training routine to start fresh as decent civilians instead of fearsome criminals told me right away what his actual role was in the story. For example, one of the bad guys' tasks at one point involved them unleashing an entire factory filled with guinea pigs. Even in the first half, I could see what he would eventually have become in the second half coming from a mile away. But though his ultimate decisions didn't quite add up, it all involved a giant meteor that fell into the city many years ago, which Pirahna kept mistaking as shaped like a butt instead of a heart. And his ways of moving forth with his plans felt so bizarre and cheekily unreal that this character nonetheless got some laughs out of me.
The governor of Los Angeles, Diane Foxington, felt like a slightly generic character, but she still had some decent moments of modesty. The first time she laid eyes on Mr. Wolf, she always suspected him of preparing to have what devious plan he had set in motion, especially on her. However, when she caught wind of Mr. Wolf's budding sense of courtesy towards others, especially his friends, she started to see more in him than he would have let on. I will not dare give away what her real identity is come the second half of the movie, either, but when this part of her character and background came forth, suddenly it reintroduced her into a new light in a way that was not unfamiliar but still equally exciting.
The policewoman, Misty Huggins, was boisterous, fierce, as hotheaded as Pirahna, and felt like a laugh riot. The way she was animated and reacted every time she either caught the following trace of the bad guys' whereabouts or lost sight of them once again led to some priceless reactions from her. Her loud and over-the-top voice, provided by Alex Borstein, also helped add some comedic pizazz to her character whenever she stomped around or rammed forth in hot pursuit. You can tell right away that this character hunted down these criminals for a very long time yet was continuously outwitted by them and their shenanigans. This character reminded me of Razoul from Aladdin, with his slightly over-the-top demeanor and how he always hunted Aladdin down because of his thieving streak.
The more I think about it, I ought to tip my head to the voice actors in this movie. For a cast rounded up for an animated film, they all knew how to convey their characters with a slight dash of dignity and make them compelling enough to make this movie feel like a solid caper fit for families.
Sam Rockwell sounded extra charismatic playing Mr. Wolf. He always portrayed him with his dashing, swaggering outlook on life and his methods of concocting what he hoped would have gone down in infamy as some of the most notorious crimes ever committed. But in moments where he started to express his inner tenderness, suddenly, he made him sound more like a decent and well-meaning individual who still had a ways to go to redeem himself but was on the right path to get there. Marc Maron felt very hostile and no-nonsense as Mr. Snake. He always gave him a rough voice, which jibed well with his character's commitment to his and his gang's crime spree. And he did an excellent job of honing down his more off-putting tones to express his character with a more sympathetic but still rough demeanor. Awkwafina was surprisingly not that bad as Ms. Tarantula. She conveyed her character with some snappy dialogue and witty banter with her companions. Craig Robinson felt humorously delightful as Mr. Shark. Sometimes, whenever he got emotional, he expressed it has such through his character that he felt either sympathetic or very humorous. And, whenever he was masquerading as someone else, his falsetto tones and disguises led to some priceless expressions. There's just something about Anthony Ramos playing Mr. Piranha that I wish was given a lot more to work with. As I mentioned, Mr. Piranha's character reminded me of Joe Pesci's typical character in most gangster movies. Maybe, if Ramos had the privilege to portray him as such, it would have elevated Mr. Piranha to a new level of irresistibility. It was pretty hit and miss compared to the other four I mentioned. And for all the inconsistencies with her characterizations and her design, the voice acting lent to Diane Foxington by Zazie Beetz nearly made up for it. She always conveyed her character with a more levelheaded outlook, either as the city governor or whenever she spoke with Mr. Wolf. And whenever she did some other tasks you wouldn't have expected out of her, she portrayed Diane as being feistier than ever before. And then, Richard Ayoade made Rupert IV a slightly interesting character, despite his shortcomings. The cute and cuddly voices he conveyed through his character, when you pair that up with his reputation in Los Angeles, made him range from anywhere between sickeningly sweet and slightly funny. And as more angles of his character came forth, he continued to grow in comedic factors.
The story? At first glance, you might think the story was bound to be regular or standard. But then…man, just like the characters, it carried some sick tricks up its sleeve!
The story's standardness can be traced more within the movie's first half. You know how the drill goes; a group of bad guys rummaged around town committing crimes, only to get themselves mixed in an experiment that would have guaranteed them amnesty if they continued to prove themselves as capable of redeeming themselves. And then, as they moved forth with this goal, they started to develop some uncertainties over their commitment and where their loyalties lay. But then, the last half was where the movie would easily surprise you. Even though it did start with a stock reveal concerning one of its characters, the rest of the film, the way I will safely dispel it to you, felt surprisingly crafty. First, some friends became enemies, while others only played enemies. Soon, all the characters that carried some element of villainy in them all competed against one another to see who would've reigned supreme as the top bad guy, if you will. Frankly, this kind of shift felt like it went from being All Dogs Go to Heaven to The Departed because then, you'd have to remind yourself which characters were doing the righteous deeds and which ones were doing the nefarious deeds. Only in this case, the objective was to see who was pulling off the heist and which ones were pulling off the reverse heist. As unoriginal as it may have been by storytelling standards, it at least added up to an action-packed and exciting adventure that came with plenty of exciting revelations and some heartfelt moments to take us all by surprise, moviegoers and characters alike.
I should also mention that I caught some unfavorable criticisms from those who thought the movie crafted a 'looks-are-deceiving' message with the predators and how they could be better than what their public image alleged them to be. It was something that Zootopia told and mastered to significant effect, so I can understand the faulty likenesses in the plot. But whereas Zootopia can easily be interpreted as an allegory of racism, The Bad Guys felt like a creative story involving a group of animals who were all judged for what their species represented for so long and responded as such. And let's not forget, when one of the members started doing good deeds, it sparked some debate between them over whether they should all move forward or stick to their crime spree. It made this film lean more into poking fun at the general fairy-tale stereotypes associated with them than Zootopia, and to me, it gave it enough intrigue to help it stand on its own.
However, the next comparison I am about to make here, even I think, is a lot weirder. The last time I saw an animated family film that dealt with either crime or the mafia, that happened to be Shark Tale, also released by DreamWorks Animation. However, the difference is, Shark Tale suffered from squeezing in too many pop cultural references and elements that did not jibe with one another coherently within its story. On the other hand, The Bad Guys knew what it was doing, and all the references to crime movies or mafia flicks that it contained were done more in homage to them instead. That’s what I call learning from your mistakes cinematically.
Speaking of which, here's another part of the movie that felt reminiscent of gangster films: the movie started with Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake just talking over breakfast at a diner. It went on for several minutes, and right away, I could tell that this was paying homage to the opening scene of Pulp Fiction.
But I digress. Even though I feel like The Bad Guys had some slight animation and story flaws, everything else about it that worked, like the characters, the voice acting, and the general presentation of its story, completely overshadowed them. The characters felt slick, the blending of 2D and 3D animation was a nice change of pace from DreamWorks Animation's usual fare, the story used familiar beats to weave together something entirely new and refreshing, the voice acting felt well-rounded, and the general appeal of this movie would invite your inner child to have fun with these characters and their shenanigans while digesting its message of courtesy. I don't know what the future holds in store for this film, but if the book series it was adapted from is anything to judge it on, it raises the likelihood of there being more films with these characters in the future, just like what Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon had. I'm hoping it's true with this movie once it has the right potential and groundwork necessary to arrange that.
This film may not have gotten away with complete artistic integrity, but it steals the show, nonetheless.