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The laughs are easy and breezy at the beginning of “The Bad Guys,” and the animated comedy’s sun-baked vibe radiates Southern California cool.
A wolf named Wolf and a snake named Snake enjoy snappy banter at a retro L.A. diner, having the kind of conversation they’ve probably had countless times over their years of friendship. They push and pull, jostle and tug, all in good-natured fashion. Then they get up, stroll casually across the street, and rob a bank. Pierre Perifel, making his feature directing debut, lays all of this out in one long, single take, instantly drawing us in to these characters and this world. It's an extremely familiar set-up, a subgenre unto itself: hyper-verbal thieves charm us into coming along for the ride and rooting for them to pull off their biggest heist yet. This is a furry, scaly version of Quentin Tarantino or Elmore Leonard—or at least, that’s what it aspires to be. But it’s a clever change to see such a story told in animated form with a star-studded voice cast including Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Zazie Beetz, and Awkwafina.
This opening scene of “The Bad Guys” is its strongest, and it offers great promise. But the wise-cracking, fast-talking energy that was once so buoyant grows increasingly strained as the story evolves and reaches its frenzied conclusion.
Based on the kids’ graphic novel series by Aaron Blabey, “The Bad Guys” follows a group of fun-loving criminals who lean into their rap as the villains of the animal kingdom for thrills and profit. Wolf (voiced by a smooth Rockwell) is their charismatic leader, with unmistakable shades of Danny Ocean. (In case the similarities weren’t obvious, he repeatedly gets compared to George Clooney.) Snake (a gravelly, earthy Marc Maron) is the cranky but loyal safecracker. Shark (Craig Robinson) is the enthusiastic master of disguise, but the amusing running bit is that it’s always totally obvious he’s a shark. Tarantula (Awkwafina) is the speedy and resourceful hacker, an assignment where it would indeed be useful to have eight arms. And the main skill the quick-tempered Piranha (Anthony Ramos) seems to bring is toxic flatulence, which at first seems like a gratuitous gag to make kids in the audience giggle, but it ends up being a surprisingly cohesive through-line in the script from Etan Cohen (“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”). (It’s still gross, though.)
After they get caught trying to steal a valuable statue from a swanky gala, the notorious Bad Guys agree to clean up their act with the help of the celebrated, philanthropic guinea pig Professor Marmalade (a perky Richard Ayoade) in order to avoid jail time. The tiny, prissy rodent lives in a gargantuan, cliffside mansion made for a Bond villain, our first clue that perhaps not everything is as simple as it seems. The team gets some cover from the governor, Diane Foxington (Beetz), who wants to see them go straight; she also happens to share a playful flirtation with Wolf. But Wolf’s scheme is for the Bad Guys to pretend they’ve become good guys in order to trick everyone and remain ... bad. Sound good?
The animation is colorful and lively—almost incessant, really—and the physical comedy is at its most inspired when it subtly toys with the natural instincts of these anthropomorphized creatures: the way Snake sheds his skin mid-heist, for example, or how Tarantula walks across a fingerprinting pad when the gang gets booked into jail. For a big chunk of the film, we literally have a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as the group’s leader is forced to dress in a cuddly lamb onesie as part of his rehabilitation. It’s good for a chuckle, at first.
But the midsection feels saggy and the early zip and swagger wear thin. Still, there are some useful notions here about second chances and redemption, as well as upending people’s perceptions to emerge as the best possible version of yourself. Sounds facile, but the script handles these themes with some intelligence. At the very least, “The Bad Guys” encourages kids not to judge a book by its cover—and maybe even read an actual book about these characters afterward.
Now playing in theaters.
Sam Rockwell as Mr. Wolf (voice)
Marc Maron as Mr. Snake (voice)
Craig Robinson as Mr. Shark (voice)
Anthony Ramos as Mr. Piranha (voice)
Awkwafina as Ms. Tarantula (voice)
Richard Ayoade as Professor Marmalade (voice)
Zazie Beetz as Diane Foxington (voice)
Lilly Singh as Tiffany Fluffit (voice)
Alex Borstein as Police Chief Misty Luggins (voice)
Walt Dohrn as Scientist / Gala Guest 3 (voice)