As Spring slowly arrives (really, April snow), the multiplex makes way for a new family-friendly animated feature film (and contrary to what the Academy said, that medium can tackle the more mature subject matter, like FLEE). Now, this one’s got an interesting twist, a “spin” on a firmly established trope of the “cartoon conflict’. Well, it’s not a “skewed’ satiric fairy tale or fable but rather goes further back, before the features, to those “much-missed” theatrical shorts. Very often they dealt with a chase, usually a pursuit with a predator animal trying to capture its (not so defenseless) prey. In the world of Looney Tunes, Sylvester is after Tweety while the Coyote was always several steps behind that Roadrunner. But what about shifting the focus from the “heroes” to the “villains”, to a team of “nogoodniks” who somehow want to change? Or do they? Can they really “flip” their “nature” or must they remain THE BAD GUYS?
This “cartoon caper” begins with a casual diner conversation between the gang’s leader, Wolf (voice of Sam Rockwell), and his “second in command” and BFF Snake (Marc Maron). After exiting the “greasy spoon”, the duo begins a “bank heist’ with the help of the rest of the “crew”: computer-hacking whiz Tarantula (Awkwafina), master of disguise Shark (Craig Robinson), and the tiny but powerful Piranha (Anthony Ramos). After barely escaping capture by their arch-nemesis, Police Chief Luggins (Alex Borstein), the gang return to their secret lair and begin to plan their next “job”. A TV news report informs them that the valuable Golden Dolphin award for Samaritan of the Year will be presented to Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) at a “fancy-schmancy” museum event. For Wolf, the “icing on the cake” is that the award will be given by newly elected Governor Foxington (Zazie Beetz). The gang complains that many criminals have failed to nab the Dolphin, but Wolf insists that this will be their greatest “score”. Of course, the plan doesn’t quite go smoothly, as Wolf helps a much-older matron who nearly trips down a staircase. He has an odd sensation, a twinge of euphoria inside sparked by doing good and causing his tail to wag. This helps lead to the gang’s capture, but security footage of Wolf’s selfless act inspires the Prof to plead for the gang, insisting that he can change their ways and do a better job of reforming them than any prison. Can the “bad guys” go good or is this just part of a bigger scheme? And what about that spark between Wolf and the Guv?
Dreamworks Animation theatrical features have been “hit and miss” of late, often releasing uninspired sequels (the last SPIRIT horse-flick was true horse…y’know) and tepid original ideas, but put this effort in the plus category. This may be due to the source material, a popular series of children’s books by Aaron Blabey, adapted with playful glee by screenwriters Etan Cohen and Yonni Brenner who have included several nods to the old “let’s steal something in the most intricate way possible” movies. The familiar setting of the first scene gives us a “head’s up’ as they recreate the eatery from the “bookends” of PULP FICTION. The other plus is the inspired direction of first-time feature director Pierre Perifel who balances the engaging character interchanges with action sequences that take a welcome satiric swing at the excesses of many blockbusters (consider this a “palette cleanser” to the insufferable AMBULANCE). Cameras swoop above and around the speeding vehicles before slowing down for us to appreciate a subtle visual “nugget”, then “revving up’ for some bit of F&F gravity-defying nonsense. Happily the flick also employs some really inspired, funny character designs, “filling-out” Blabey’s comic-strip imagery, while not going overboard on the “too busy” detailing of many CGI renderings, though I did enjoy the darkened lines about the eyes and lips which bring out the expressions. Now, this is a bit of a human/animal mix, unlike say ZOOTOPIA or the KUNG FU PANDA series, humans interact with the critters on the same level, much like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, so there’s the “fur-less folk” who are every bit as exaggerated but seem to owe much to the “anime” wide-eyed and “open-mouth” tropes we’re seeing more frequently, from LUCA to TURNING RED. Perhaps this is done to make the animals “stand out” a bit more, though I wish the Police Chief and her crew looked as appealing. What does work is the use of this terrific vocal cast led by Rockwell who is pure laid-back “Clooney cool” as Wolf while Maron conveys a different side to his wiseguy stand-up comic (and podcaster) persona as the irritable, curmudgeonly Snake (thinking his “bucket hat” is a nod to Carl Reiner in the OCEANS trilogy) . Oh,, and extra kudos to the artisans who have recreated the sun-drenched LA streets that are a backdrop to the frenetic mayhem. With so much to offer in the way of animated entertainment, audiences of any age should have fun spending a good 100 minutes with THE BAD GUYS.
3 out of 4
THE BAD GUYS opens in theaters everywhere on April 22, 2022