“The Bad Guys” begins with a suit-clad wolf and a cynical snake sitting at a diner, exchanging snappy patter about various mundanities before strolling across the street to rob a bank, accompanied by a bouncy, jazzy score.
If not for the fact that we’re watching two talking animals, it’s a scene that would feel perfectly at home in a Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh film. It also immediately situates for the audience exactly where this latest Dreamworks Animation offering pulls its inspirations from ..
Directed by Pierre Perifel with a script by Etan Cohen, “The Bad Guys” is based on the popular children’s book series by writer-artist Aaron Blabey. Pulling from a tool chest of heist movie tropes, the adaptation adds sparkle to a fairly shopworn formula thanks to impressive – and expressive – animation and a star-studded cast of voice actors going for that “one last score” with admirable gusto.
In addition to the similarly Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), a smooth operator, and Snake (Marc Maron), his second hand, there’s flatulent Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), muscular Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and super- hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina). These are creatures who’ve historically gotten a bum rap thanks to storybook tales of Red Riding Hood and Miss Muffet, so it’s no wonder they’ve decided to live up to their reputations and become highway-robbing hoodlums.
Meanwhile, newly elected Gov. Diane Foxington (a fox voiced by Zazie Beets) is intent on bringing them in, and philanthropist guinea pig Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) has his own ideas about how to reform the wayward menagerie. Add into the mix a lavish gala with a gold-studded dolphin statue on offer, and you have all the makings of an “Ocean’s”-esque heist film — complete with romantic tension between the bad guy ringleader and foxy politician.
Aided by character designs that are a lovely synthesis of Blabey’s drawings and a CGI upgrade, the performers all have fun with their roles. Rockwell in particular makes a meal, in true Big Bad Wolf fashion, out of a character clearly inspired by Danny Ocean himself. , George Clooney. And lest there be any doubt, the film makes the subtext explicit by referring to it as “full Clooney” when Wolf turns on the charm.
Mind you, all this takes place in a version of Los Angeles where these anthropomorphic, intelligent animals live side by side with regular ol’human beings – not to mention several other animals of the non-talking variety. I must admit I spent perhaps too too much time pondering the backstory of this bizarre “Planet of the Apes”-like setup and wondering if there was some in-story explanation, but nope, turns out it’s just a conceit of the genre.
Blabey’s book series, which began in 2015 and is now 15 installments deep, mostly revolves around the main characters trying to sway the public perception of them, with those efforts usually running aground due to some comedic misunderstanding or other. While the film does retain those broad strokes, the third act gets enveloped by the bombast of the mystery villain’s dastardly scheme.
If anything, the fun character dynamics laid out in the first two acts make it all the more disappointing when the final third tips over into noisy excess. But on balance, this ends up being a small complaint.
One thing a lifetime of heist movies has taught us is that the key is having a plan and sticking to it. By that metric, “The Bad Guys” stays within its demarcated lines with practiced, unquestionable finesse.
L“The Bad Guys”: Animated. Directed by Pierre Perifel. Starring Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Craig Robinson, Awkwafina and Zazie Beets. (PG. 100 minutes.) In theaters Friday, April 22.