The Bad Guys tell the story of anthropomorphic characters usually associated with villains. In this world of humans and animals, the predators of wolves and snakes are regarded as criminals. Instead of eating other animals, however, they mostly commit bank robberies and car chases. They still eat animals on the side but kinda keep it low-key. After all, this is an animated movie aimed at kids and is much less likely to take a grander stance on nature’s cruelty or the ethical concerns of good guys and bad guys.
This may make the film seem limited in its ambition but the low bar is one that is crossed with a certain grace. The film is all about how you can’t adhere to stereotypes with how you view the world. In the opening bank heist, the heist leader of Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) addresses the camera directly. He’s aware of your perceptions about wolves portrayed in stories. The life of a bad guy is one he has embraced, taking a certain easygoing thrill in being so intimidating around a city of frightened citizens and angered cops.
His crew is a quirky batch of misfits with their own abilities. Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) is a skillful safe-cracker who favors the predator lifestyle. Mr. Tarantula (Awkwafina) is a smart hacker and dabbles in all things web because, well, she’s a spider and a film like this just can’t resist an easy pun. Mr. Pirhana (Anthony Ramos) is the small but forceful muscle of the crew, eager to jump into any fight. And then there’s Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), a master of disguise despite appearing to be the only shark in the city. Either the shark is very convincing or the entire city needs better eye prescriptions.
The gang enjoys its notoriety until it is challenged by Governor Foxington (Zazie Beetz). She believes the thieves have misunderstood animals who are rather pathetic for doing the same old bank robberies time after time. She believes there’s good in them and Wolf aims to prove her wrong. Also finding more to these misfits is the city’s most celebrated philanthropist, the guinea pig Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). When the gang finds itself being captured by the authorities, Marmalade believes this is a perfect opportunity to reeducate these criminals on the values of being good. Or so it would seem.
I really dug the style of The Bad Guys. There’s clearly some heavy inspiration from the anime Lupin the Third for more than just the similar translation of names. The slapstick antics of the heists have similar poses and snaps akin to the way that Lupin and his crew would flee from cops and make off with the loot. There are also little details that make the inspiration obvious, as in the scene where Wolf swims through the air. I couldn’t help but think of the old dub of Castle of Cagliostro where Lupin was referred to as Wolf due to a copyright issue. Bundle all of this with some 2D-style effects of smoke and action lines and it really did feel like watching a new Lupin movie, albeit one more suitable for kids. It also has much of the same comedy akin to the character’s style, with the crowding cops and ridiculous moments of action. Kids won’t have to worry about the humor being that subtle; they’ll be right at home with Mr. Pirhana looking at a heart-shaped lamp and insisting that it looks like a butt.
What helps elevate such a film above just being a simplistic slapstick adventure is the easy-to-digest topic being good. The film never goes down the same route as Zootopia by approaching the broader topic of nature versus nurture that can sometimes become mixed-messaged with a tale of anthropomorphic animals. The film reduces the topic of good deeds being a personal benefit of feeling better about being there for someone else. Sure, such a message could be better communicated than treating it more like the butterflies in your stomach, but the simplicity makes it a more palatable lesson for the younger crowd. It’s hard not to miss the obvious messaging when the film takes several scenes to point out how you can’t go by stereotypes for all the harm and misinformation they carry.
The Bad Guys are not bad at all as a stylish heist picture with a solid theme amid its vibrantly slick and stylish animation. It’s distinct enough to set itself apart from the pack of common animated films, even if it does harbor some familiar modern animation hallmarks of rounded grins and rounded features. Despite the morality tale being grounded down to a simpler fable, the overall energy is strong enough to make a case for how animation is a medium perfectly suited for the fast-paced speed of a heist picture. Most of it is a lot of fun with the exception of the third act that goes down an odd sci-fi route. It makes Wolf’s cited Clooney look feel warranted, even if it comes during a scene with the obvious pun of the wolf literally being in sheep’s clothing.