Once upon a time, there was a brilliant new animation company striving to bring new life and feeling — not to mention dollars — to feature animation. And there was DreamWorks Animation, which was supposed to become that company and didn’t.
What it did become was the strange other brand to Disney / Pixar, creating very similar movies that weren’t quite those movies but were close enough to ride a shared wave of success.
For a time. Today, the quasi-identity of not-Disney has been usurped by Universal / Illumination (and sometimes Sony), leaving what remains of DreamWorks — a once upstart studio now also part of Universal after being bought and sold several times — to search for a new identity.
That new identity, at least as far as exposed in The Bad Guys, isn’t too different from what’s being offered by the other not-Disneys – loud, quippy, kinetic like a toddler overdosing on sugar and adrenaline and sent out into the world, but with enough heart to reign most of the excesses.
In a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals live side-by-side (and by-side with real animals, too), The Bad Guys are easy to spot. They’re the scary predatory animals children naturally fear: a wolf (Sam Rockwell), a snake (Marc Maron), a shark (Craig Robinson), a tarantula (Awkwafina), etc.
Books aren’t necessary here; covers tell you all you need to know, and these bad guys live up to their reputation, taking anything they covet and building a formidable reputation without somehow giving up enough proof for the local sheriff (Alex Borstein) actually to arrest them.
Deep inside those covers is a different story, however, one where friendship and feeling good by doing good are true virtues. It’s a story Mr. Wolf seems to want to let out, even if he isn’t sure why beyond the idea that “everybody loves a redemption story.”
Exactly why he would feel that way and what it means is beyond what The Bad Guys is interested in: this is not an ontological study on the nature of philanthropy. It’s taken as read that goodness is worthwhile (as it should be, probably), and it’s left to Wolf and his band to discover this truth, first by pretending to go straight but then ever so slowly to find themselves enjoying their newfound do-gooding after rescuing a horde of guinea pigs from an animal testing facility.
The Bad Guys‘ deconstruction of predators as obvious story villains follows closely behind Zootopia‘s similar trajectory but with a lot less charm and world-building. The guiding principle mostly seems to be ‘just go with it’ as Bad Guys flits quickly from set up to set up, preferring to set up a slew of sight gags rather than any real fantasy.
Comprehension is replaced with urgency, the built-in hyperactivity keeping things moving even as it explains next to nothing about the characters or their environment. A recent meteorite strike to the city is tossed off as commonplace while simultaneously hinting at the reason the world is the way it is.
That team seems better spent letting them bounce off walls and each other as they attempt more and more ludicrously-conceived heists, often at top volume so that color and noise can keep the attention of the core audience, even if they stand-in for actual content.
There is some real heart beneath that sturm and drang, though. As bored as Rockwell’s Wolf comes across, his slow realization of the power of goodness opens up real emotions and connections, tentative connections that can and are easily severed by betrayal, offering stakes where zany comedy has none.
It’s trite, and it’s shallow, but it’s real. In that, if nothing else, it sets itself apart from the Hotel Transylvania and Addams Family‘s of the world.
Hopefully, it’s a feature of the new DreamWorks identity and not a bug, or this new version of a former animation powerhouse will become just another content creator among many.
THE BAD GUYS REVIEW SCORE: 6.5 OUT OF 10
Universal Pictures will release The Bad Guys in theaters on Friday, April 22. The film is rated PG for action and rude humor.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.