If you told me that I was about to watch a movie with such immensely talented and interesting actors as Sam Rockwell, Zazie Beetz, Anthony Ramos, Craig Robinson, Marc Maron, Awkwafina, and Alex Borstein, you would certainly have my attention, and I would be very excited to see said movie. Now imagine all of those fine folks as voice actors in a subpar, derivative animated film from DreamWorks Animation, and you have The Bad Guys, the story of a group of anthropomorphic animal criminal characters who pretend to be good in order to pull off the biggest heist their make-believe city has ever seen.
Based on the book series by Aaron Blabey and directed by Pierre Perifel (an animator for the Kung Fu Panda films, making his feature-directing debut), The Bad Guys tells the story of a crew of outlaws whom everybody seems to know but nobody can catch. There’s the leader Mr. Wolf (Rockwell), his best buddy Mr. Snake (Maron), master of disguise Mr. Shark (Robinson), hair-trigger-tempered Mr. Piranha (Ramos), and expert hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina)—I’m assuming the Mr./Ms. names are references to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, because kids will get that. The film isn’t exactly leaping through hoops to be original. They finally get caught by the local sheriff (Borstein), but agree to be a part of an experiment conducted by well known nice guy and patient tutor, Prof. Marmalade (a guinea pig, in case you were wondering, voiced by Richard Ayoade), who promises to convert these bad guys into model citizens.
At least at first, the bad guys think the plan is a good one to avoid jail time and gain access to the ultimate target of thievery, the Golden Dolphin, given by the governor (Beetz) for exceptionally good behavior in the community. So while they’re learning to be good, they’re also hatching a scheme. But as Wolf gets to know Gov. Diane Foxington (a fox) and sees the benefits of helping others, he begins to doubt the plan or being bad at all, something that does not sit well with Snake, who feels betrayed and begins to doubt the foundation of their friendship.
Not surprisingly, a few surprises are in store regarding the motivations and histories of both the governor and the professor, which make the last third of The Bad Guys slightly more interesting than the setup. Truth be told, the only thing that consistently held my attention with the film was hearing the voices of actors I like so much, with only Maron putting on a voice that is slightly different than his normal speaking voice (he yells angrily most of the time). Rockwell is simply oozing charm; Beetz comes with a tinge of sophistication; Robinson is smooth and eager to make you smile; Awkwafina emits an intelligent hipster vibe; and Ramos is just crazy. And they all manage to be interesting despite the best efforts of the screenplay to make them like so many other cookie-cutter animated animal characters. If there was even the slightest effort to make the dialog even marginally funnier, I might have truly adored this movie. Alas…
The animation style is fairly flat, which is surprising coming from this studio (it pops about as much as a Despicable Me movie with with less color). In the end, the movie ended and I felt nothing, even with the hammered-in messages about helping others and doing good. Let’s face it: being bad is much more cinematic.
The film opens today in theaters.
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