The thing that separates The Bad Guys from other animated family films is that it has genuine attitude. Most movies of this sort tell nice stories about characters learning an important lesson, and maybe becoming better people (or animals, or toys, or whatever) from their adventures. This one has a story like that too, but it also acknowledges that being bad can be kind of fun once in a while. That approach makes the redemption arc of the central figures much more affecting. Toss in a ton of sassy, sarcastic humor and you've got an animated film that stands apart from the pack.
The “heroes” are a group of animals generally seen by the public as scary. The ringleader is Wolf (Sam Rockwell). His team members are Snake (Marc Maron), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos). They take great pride in robbing banks and stealing valuable artifacts. Wolf has a new plan for the group. Every year, Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) gives an award to a citizen who exemplifies kindness and public service. This year, it's going to perpetual do-gooder/guinea pig Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). Wolf figures that if they can steal the award, it will demonstrate their prowess, along with their contempt for authority.
The heist goes wrong and the group is arrested. Rather than seeing them go to jail, Professor Marmalade makes a suggestion. If he can train them to become good, perhaps Foxington will offer an official pardon for all their crimes. She reluctantly agrees to the idea. Wolf and friends, however, see this as an opportunity to get away scot-free. All they have to do is pretend to change and they'll be off the hook. They might even be able to snatch that award after all.
The Bad Guys is most definitely about how this band of criminals learns the value of acting with benevolence. Part of what makes it so enjoyable is that the plot doesn't reach that destination the way you expect it to. Every time I thought I knew precisely where the story was headed, a plot twist was thrown in to send things in a different direction. Without giving any significant details away, Wolf and associates learn to embrace decency almost by accident. This is not a movie with abrupt reversals of behavior or sudden epiphanies. The characters are instead thrust into unexpected situations that force them to consider different choices. Going about the message delivery this way makes the film much more fun than if it was predictable.
Humor serves the themes well. Wolf, Snake, and the others like being bad. They get pleasure from it, which is often played for laughs. Snake, in particular, lives for bad behavior, even employing it against his teammates. A running joke finds him repeatedly withholding a popsicle from Shark, to the latter's continual dismay. When the characters find themselves feeling warm-and-fuzzy from the rare good deed, the sensation is unfamiliar and scary to them. That's funny, as well. None of them know quite what to do with a vibe that goes totally against their nature. The Bad Guys is frequently hilarious in how it depicts the transformation its animal heroes make.
Animation in the movie is exquisite, with fast-paced chase and heist scenes that, again, infuse everything with attitude. We like watching the characters misbehave because their antics are amusing. Director Pierre Perifel and writer Etan Cohen (adapting Aaron Blabey's book series) know that, so they play it up, showing awareness that being bad can feel exhilarating. The crazy antics in the first half yield nicely into the more substantive back half, culminating in a finale that's as earned as it is satisfying.
With superior voice performances from the whole cast, The Bad Guys is awesome entertainment for the whole family.
out of four
The Bad Guys is rated PG for action and rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.