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"The Bad Guys," Good, but not Great

Fans of animation have always been lucky to count on studios such as Laika, Cartoon Saloon, and Studio Ghibli to provide alternative animated films. But with the advent of recent success stories like 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, major studios are now beginning to feel more comfortable in taking the risks that can take an otherwise serviceable film to the next level. The Bad Guys strives to deliver on that promise. As an adult watching a film intended for children, it can sometimes be difficult to separate critical thinking from mere enjoyment, but if the film is doing what it should (trappings of the children’s film genre, be damned), constructive criticism should be the furthest from one’s mind. In the case of The Bad Guys, the creative highs are staggeringly high, making the trappings of those childish restrictions that much more disappointing.

Loosely based on Australian Aaron Blabey’s children’s book series of the same name, The Bad Guys follows the story of a gang of classically feared antagonists (Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Ms. Tarantula, Mr. Shark, and Mr. Piranha) as they attempt to “break good” (or at least fake it) in order to avoid jail time for their most recent heist-gone-wrong. It’s a story that extols basic childhood lessons such as “don’t judge a book by its cover,” “people are capable of change if given the chance,” and “no man left behind.” But the bulk of the story follows Sam Rockwell’s Mr. Wolf as he begins to learn how it feels to be told that he’s good, despite being the Big Bad Wolf.

The story opens with an impressive and record-holding long-shot (lasting 2 minutes, 25 seconds, and seven frames, Dreamworks Animation’s longest), dropping you immediately into a conversation between Wolf and Snake (Marc Maron firing on all cylinders) at a diner as they celebrate Snake’s birthday. You see Wolf and Snake in frame, finishing their meal, and as they get up to leave, the “camera” pans around the diner to reveal the rest of the diners (humans) frightened for their lives, and then we follow our two protagonists outside as they walk across the street to the bank they’re about to rob. A classic heist scene ensues where we’re introduced to the rest of the crew, Tarantula (or “Webs”), Shark, and Piranha (Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, and Anthony Ramos, respectively). It’s a great start to any film, let alone an animated one. The stakes are high, the animation is interesting, and the adults watching can understand the heist sendup the film is nailing, while children viewers can bypass that understanding and still have a great time. The opening scene of The Bad Guys is exactly what you want in an animated film, and it also happens to carry the same energy promised by its first trailer. What follows, unfortunately, muddies the waters.

Animation, typically, has an advantage that sometimes conventional films have a difficult time accessing, in that it can openly design its own rules. At this point in time, in a world hardly untouched by Disney, most living people can easily associate animation with talking animals. But then there are the subsections of animated films with both talking humans and talking animals that interact, talking humans and talking animals that don’t interact or can’t speak with each other, and talking animals in a fully animalia world. The rules get a little blurred, however, when you have a film where animals are given anthropomorphic characteristics where they do speak and interact with the humans, but then there is a subspecies of animals that are only that, animals. The Bad Guys, obviously, falls into this category. Aside from our main five heist crew, there are two other anthropomorphic animals, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) as the state governor and Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) as a guinea pig who is up for receiving a do-gooder award at a philanthropic event.

The rest of the film, however, is inhabited by humans and animal-animals. This was a conscious choice made by Blabey and the filmmakers, as Blabey wanted the reaction shots in the film to read as obvious as possible, fearing that if there were other anthropomorphic animals in the background, both adult and child minds would be first acknowledging the presence of the other animals before focussing on the pure reactions of the crowd. That explanation is understandable, but it leads to further confusion when, mid-movie, the gang is set on a task of do-gooding to prove their goodness which entails emancipating a large group of guinea pigs from an animal testing facility within the very same city that is about to award Professor Marmalade a prestigious award. Why does one guinea pig deserve an award while the rest are allowed to suffer? And why, out of all the possible animals, are there only guinea pigs and one lone cat?

For a premise hinging on the audience’s ability to empathize with the gang as being misjudged because of their species, it’s difficult to understand how this particular society came to fear these creatures in a vacuum. Without the presence of other snakes or sharks, the film relies on our outside knowledge, as an audience, of our own experiences with tales of Red Riding Hood, the Bible, and even Jaws to frame the inhabitants of The Bad Guys' perspectives of their fellow citizens. The Bad Guys, one must assume, is not trying to get hung up in the semantics of the how of it all but rather why it’s wrong that the humans have never given the gang a chance, and why it’s wrong that the gang has used that as an excuse to lean into a world of crime, which they all acknowledge as bad. (They call themselves the Bad Guys, after all.) But, in this world, it’s all this gang has ever known, and they have never felt what it feels like to be accepted, loved, or told they’re capable of anything else. (Although, there is this moment where Snake laments about nobody ever showing up for his birthday parties when he was young, which begs the question: Snake must have had parents then, right? And they loved him enough to throw him birthday parties, right? So, wouldn’t that mean…oh, right. The Bad Guys isn’t about that.)

Ultimately, the gang does rectify their lives’ devotion to being bad and do come over to the good side, but that is done more so through performative goodness rather than innate goodness. There are a few instances where Wolf chooses to help someone with seemingly nothing in it for himself, but it’s difficult to tell what the idea of being good is in the greater context of The Bad Guys’ story. For the most part, the characters only seem to understand the benefits of being good when they are praised for being good. Under the rules of the film’s agreement (the gang will avoid jail time if they can prove they’ve changed their ways), the gang is judged under the court of public opinion, whether that be through social media engagement or attending a gala where the public receives them with cheering and open arms. It’s through this level of acceptance that the lesser-explored gang members (Tarantula, Shark, and Piranha) start to feel that maybe being good isn’t so bad. Arguably, the only truly good character is Diane Foxington, as she is someone who changed her ways for the sake of herself and chose to become the governor because she wanted to change herself and make a difference, but all of the other motives aren’t as clear as a children’s film should profess. Wolf seemingly goes good mostly out of the goodness of his heart, but he’s also trying to woo Diane. Snake goes good because he’s afraid he’ll lose his best friend if he doesn’t. They all claim to feel “the tingle” (that feeling of self-satisfaction of completing a good task), but the performative aspect of the good deeds shouldn’t be ignored. But I guess we’ve all gotta start somewhere.

Viewed through the lens of a fun heist caper with an excellent voice cast that pokes fun at, while also honoring, all the films in the genre that have come before, The Bad Guys really works. It looks great, it generally gets its point across, and it’s fun to watch. But sadly, it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as you’d think a well-oiled team like The Bad Guys should. It falls into the recent trappings of children’s films where it’s not a musical, but the characters feel the need to dance and break into modern song (a la the end of Megamind or, the most egregious of offenders, the “I Like To Move It” segment in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), which always tends to feel out of place and seemingly intended to hook a child for repeat viewings, or even worse, for merchandising opportunities. There are also a lot of fart jokes (not the biggest gripe, but they do seem like low-hanging fruit). But besides a very active gut biome, The Bad Guys also has a lot of heart. The friendship story between Wolf and Snake is absolutely worth rooting for, and it’s fun to follow the gang as they move from heist to heist. If the film were to garner a sequel (it only covers the first four books in the series, which now has 16 installments), it would be interesting to see these characters and story evolve and move past the trappings that keep it from a perfect score. With the assembly of the perfect team, it’s definitely within reach.


Bernadette Gorman-White

Managing Editor

Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.




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