The Bad Guys is a surprisingly fun gateway into the crime genre for children. Debut director Pierre Perifel somehow adapts Aaron Blabey’s 2015 caper novels into a family-friendly thrill ride. It’s a stretch to say younger audiences can find normally visceral ideas of heists, police chases and robberies thrilling. But The Bad Guys works by poking fun at that mature source material. In the process, kids will never get enough of every visual gag. While sharp, selective references will send experienced parents into a chuckle without the story letting up.
Dreamworks Animation stays in top form with a refreshing new IP. The Bad Guys scales its story, stakes and universe back when compared to other films. Yes, it doesn’t feature grand-scale visuals like How To Train Your Dragon. No, Dreamworks’ latest film isn’t as extensively cast as Shrek or Trolls. Instead, The Bad Guys thrives off its theme of “Tarantino for kids.” This is very much a street-level heist film, carried by a handful of Hollywood gems and stylish set pieces.
My gosh, The Bad Guys is one of Dreamworks’ most gorgeously animated films yet. Without getting too technical, the graphics add a stop-motion like choppiness to it and the desired effect projects a graphic novel which smoothly comes to life. The Bad Guys shows Dreamworks’ latest formula with impressive details to lighting, shadows and cosmopolitan ambience in each set piece. Eyes reflect, fur naturally bounces, tuxedos sparkle and laser grids emanate with fog. Parents going for their kids will get their own money’s worth from sheer technical display alone. Animators deserve all the credit for bringing Blabey’s books to life with a pair of Ray Bans and virgin Mojito.
There isn’t much story to unpack from The Bad Guys and the movie benefits greatly from this fact. Younger viewers and families will easily catch up with Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), a sharply-dressed con man and master thief. Witty, charismatic and collected, Sam Rockwell channels his inner-Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2. An opening heist sequence let Rockwell charm audiences with a compelling fourth-wall monologue. Mr. Wolf doesn’t deny his influence from other Hollywood thieves, so much so that The Bad Guys makes nods to Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job and Heat unapologetically.
“Rockwell keeps The Bad Guys tonally consistent, using Mr. Wolf’s motivations to stay grounded.”
For Sam Rockwell, he channels excitement into the next heist. It’s a special chemistry he shares with the titular crew as they follow him into highly illegal situations. In every heist, Mr. Wolf somehow finds himself charming Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz). The Bad Guys rightly holds her back as a love interest. Foxington, a respected, law-abiding politician, compels viewers as Mr. Wolf’s opposite. Like the Ocean’s films, Mr. Fox finds his job harder as he stumbles onto Foxington. It’s a neat dynamic that shakes up every heist.
Rockwell keeps The Bad Guys tonally consistent, using Mr. Wolf’s motivations to stay grounded. This is how the film remains as stylish and mischievous as it does, even over the 90-minute runtime. The Bad Guys keeps him centred in a personal arc. After committing a good deed mid-heist, Mr. Wolf starts to question his criminal nature. It’s a simple development which fits nicely into the chemistry of four other teammates.
Without spoilers, The Bad Guys works that fateful heist into a lesson of kindness. Wholesome guinea pig philanthropist, Mr. Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) pledges to reform the team instead of putting them in prison bars. All the while, Mr. Wolf is caught in an identity crisis as his friends plan to rob Mr. Marmalade.
Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) cracks grumpy jokes as well as he does with a safe. The expert safecracker is jaded through a life of crime. But stays a loyal confidant with Mr. Wolf. Both share the deepest chemistry by talking about the “big picture” in every heist. Kids might catch onto Mr. Snake’s insatiable hunger for rodents – something of an addiction which brings in laughs. Maron’s grizzled performance sticks with families, packing the same carefree spirit as Steve Buschemi in Reservoir Dogs. Complete with self-aware sarcasm that goes a long way for Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson).
Mr. Shark adds to The Bad Guys’ visual gags, with each member of the team an effective addition. The bulk of the comedy becomes clichéd for children when dialogue wins over parents. Each member of the team taps into their animal nature for some effective gags. From Mr. Snake being used as a grappling hook, to Mr. Wolf wagging his tail at good deeds and Mr. Piranha clobbering cops. It’s all a staple for a family-friendly comedy which already entertains through heists alone. I suggest younger viewers keep an eye on the background in every chase sequence. There might be some hilarious ways to see Los Angeles fall apart in all the chaos. Save for a few throwaway gags on-screen, The Bad Guys revels in self-aware humour thanks to strong writing.
Robinson channels his winning comedic formula to pull off Mr. Shark. This member of The Bad Guys pokes fun with various disguises. Hilariously, he’ll make every unbelievable outfit and voice a convincing one. A few calls for a distraction from Mr. Shark left my theatre’s younger audiences in tears. It’s funny enough for parents to see Mr. Shark save the team on the inside. Parents will especially love when Mr. Shark distracts a guard too well, complete with the “estranged dad” trope. But kids get the last uncontrollable laughs from seeing Mr. Shark defy all logic throughout. He shares a caring friendship with the team. The film entrusts all the chemistry with the characters of Mr. Snake and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), who strive to keep him as happy as possible. A particular scene between Mr. Shark and Mr. Snake before the climax touches audiences with a reminder to put other people’s needs first. Ms. Tarantula puts all eight legs to use as the team’s hacker.
“The Bad Guys is hardly Dreamworks’ best work to date.”
No heist movie is complete without a Ms. Tarantula, who helps The Bad Guys break security. Awkwafina channels Shang-Chi’s Katy to project a caring, but frantic demeanour across the movie. Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos) shares the best chemistry with Ms. Tarantula. A few fart jokes here and some microaggressions there, Mr. Piranha thinks with his fists. The small, but sociopathic fish is surprisingly underused throughout. The film’s direction changes drastically as Mr. Wolf turns over a new leaf. The Bad Guys suffers from juggling multiple leads – with Ramos’ role getting the short end. For what Mr. Piranha’s presence is worth, children won’t forget his flattering trait, butt jokes with Mr. Marmalade and singing abilities. But more clobbering would have made the team’s strongest criminal just as memorable.
The Bad Guys is hardly Dreamworks’ best work to date. Its story stays strong by structuring one heist to the next. But the criminal themes start to fizzle out after an incredible first act. The Bad Guys are best when they live up to their name. The film’s message of altruism quickly sends the story into a bit of an identity crisis. Ultimately, this family friendly CGI film has a lesson on being good. Ironically, it hurts The Bad Guys’ special twist as a crime story for kids. Specifically the film loses that excitement of cops versus robbers that is handled especially well in the first act. It’s a tone that sets the film apart and clearly doesn’t offer much when it’s taken away. As The Bad Guys moves into the final act, it leans too much on Despicable Me and Marvel flicks for a bombastic end.
That’s not to say The Bad Guys loses all its flair. The team still pulls off a half-heist at its climax, complete with an Ocean’s style twist that surprised me. It comes together in a feel-good ending that shockingly avoids a sequel setup. But I respect the film for showing restraint, while The Bad Guys works great as a standalone production. Dreamworks continue their hot streak with their latest animated Hollywood flick. A bold and endearing cast use all of their wit to win children and parents alike. There are just enough smartly-written references that celebrate the crime genre of films under a daunting family-friendly delivery. The Bad Guys’ biggest score? Kids finally having their own heist film to rewatch non-stop.