Animation is on a high – the past months have treated us to the colour of Encanto, the frantic energy of The Mitchells Vs The Machines and the deeply moving Flee – but somehow DreamWorks Animation hasn’t been in the mix. Not that they’ve been absent, but their more recent offerings have fallen short of the magic of the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy.
The arrival of The Bad Guys hints at a return to form. An animated Ocean’s 11/Tarantino-esque caper aimed at families, it runs the risk of being overshadowed during the coming holiday by some bigger titles – a blue one in particular. It’s not necessarily the most original kid on the block, but it more than compensates with some fresh visuals, a strong sense of fun and some noticeably well-chosen voices. The Bad Guys of the title live in a world where humans and anthropomorphised animals live side by side. Their heists are notoriously audacious and they always slip through the cops’ clumsy fingers – until their biggest job goes spectacularly wrong. Faced with long jail sentences, they opt for the alternative of persuading everybody they’ve turned over a new leaf, under the tutelage of the goody-goody Professor Marmalade (voiced by Richard Ayoade). But, as they start getting used to their new way of life, they find that the city’s real villain has been hiding in plain sight ….
Mr Wolf, Mr Snake, Mr Shark, Mr Piranha and Ms Tarantula immediately give off those Tarantino vibes, as well as being an Animals 5 version Danny Ocean’s crew, and a Clooney running gag plus the velvet tones of Sam Rockwell as Mr Wolf make sure we don’t miss the reference. Not that we mind: in fact, a large portion of the fun lies in picking up those nods towards heist movies and their elaborate car chases, as well as a skydiving scene lifted straight from Point Break. It’s a world full of hi-tech – Ms Tarantula is their mandatory hacker (spider, web – geddit?) – yet still manages to maintain an appealing retro feel. But – and it’s a significant one – this is a film aimed at families and all this will straight over the ankle-biters’ heads. Thankfully, it just about manages to balance the two, as the broader comedy, the colour and the action will keep youngsters happy, even if they might not grasp every twist and turn in the plot.
The five, led by their big bad wolf, all have distinct characters but the problem they face – and which the film can’t really overcome – is that they’re more fun and more interesting when they’re bad. Their attempts to go straight don’t have the same energy, despite Richard Ayoade’s delicious voice acting as Professor Marmalade. Most animated films draft in well-known actors to add a little celebrity stardust to proceedings, but director Pierre Perifel has been especially skilful in his selection so that the voices really do match their characters. Ayoade is the stand-out, with a passive aggression reminiscent of Peep Show’s David Mitchell, but Marc Maron is a perfect match for the grumpy safe cracker Mr Snake and Awkwafina’s distinctive tones totally nail Ms Tarantula, especially in her most frantic moments.
The Bad Guys aren’t perfect and nor is their film. It’s set in a world that doesn’t make much sense, and its energy ebbs and flows, but when it works – which is often – it’s pacey, funny and genuinely entertaining. As for the guys themselves, let’s just say that when they’re good they’re reasonably good – and when they’re bad they’re better.
Animation, Comedy | Cert: U | UK cinemas on 1 April 2022 | Universal Studios | Dir. Pierre Perifel | The voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, Antony Ramos, Richard Ayoade, Zazie Beetz.