The Bad Guys

Been a bit since we’ve seen one of these, eh? 2022 has been a good year for video games, particularly if you like massive RPGs and SRPGs, like this writer (who is currently in the process of finishing Persona 5, and about halfway through Tactics Ogre, so reviews are on the way!).

The Bad Guys was a movie I was looking forward too. It’s released by Dreamworks, and feels a little bit like one of their older films. I could easily see something like this dropping in the oughts, back when Shrek dominated our lives. Dreamworks has been producing bad sequels that most people didn’t ask for (why is there a Boss Baby 2?) for the past few years, with 2019’s Abominable and the impeccable How to Train Your Dragon series being the only real bright spots (and let’s face it, Abominable was “How to Train Your Yeti”).

The Bad Guys seems to follow old Dreamworks formula. The main characters are anthropomorphized animals that are usually known as being the villains in various children’s stories. The film missed a slight opportunity by just straight up naming most of the animals after the animal they are: Wolf is a wolf, Snake is a snake, etc.

The basic plot is that these animals are all members of a crew. They regularly do heists, relying on their various specialties, and it’s clear that the animators had a blast determining who does what. Snake’s a safe-cracker; Spider is a hacker (because she knows the web, obviously); and Shark’s a master of disguise. That last leads to some truly humorous moments, as the shark seems to have all the disguise acumen of a 1950’s cartoon character (Jabber Jaw comes to mind). Watching normal humans act like the shark wearing a wig is clearly a gorgeous woman is amusing in and of itself.

And to the film’s credit, it does quite a lot with its premise. Any time they’re playing with heist tropes, the film is having fun, often making some good commentary. They use and twist the various tropes of the genre to comedic effect, even if sometimes that comedy is playing it straight (again, see the spider hacker). It helps that the film follows heist movie rules for a while.

The Bad Guys do a successful heist at the beginning, though we discover that they’re mostly doing it to have an awesome car chase on Snake’s birthday. However, during the heist, the kind of sexy fox mayor calls main character and crew leader Wolf out on the Bad Guys’ sloppy work, stating that they’re all flash and no substance. Determined to prove them wrong, Wolf pushes the crew to steal a MacGuffin (it’s some sort of award, and knowing its name doesn’t make it any less a MacGuffin) in a big, flashy show.

Something happens that leads the group to getting caught, and the benevolent guinea pig genius who was going to win the award decides to teach them to be good.

Aaaaaand there’s where the film falls short. (and where the Spoiler begin, but to be fair, the movie’s been out on Netflix for a few weeks now [again: my load of awesome new games was heavy]).

See, the film establishes a premise that, yes, may be a bit cliche, but has some impact. It seems to imply that the reason The Bad Guys (the crew) are bad is because everyone expects it. They take one look at the various characters and just assume they’re going to be mean and nasty. It’s another of those not-so-subtle race things that animal movies have a tendency to use (and it’s done better in Disney’s Zootopia). There’s a potential to sort of comment on the American prison system here, with the idea that we automatically assume people that look a certain way will wind up bad, so those people act bad because it’s what society expects of them, but there’s a hint that someone like this could “make good” and be a good person.

I’m more than likely pulling more out of the animated movie from the minds behind Boss Baby 2 than they expect. It’s just disappointing that they get so very, very close to a really cool, really deep idea. Zootopia already paved the way, but The Bad Guys would rather go down the same old roads as always.

The plot just becomes annoyingly predictable for the most part. Wolf really wants to be good, so he actually tries. The rest of the crew doesn’t get it. Wolf ruins a potential heist as a result, and there’s this idea that he may be betraying them. Yes, you’ve seen that plot and this movie before.

What’s annoying is that, again, they were so close. Not just the previously mentioned bit, but in the turning good. There are five animals in the crew. You’re telling me that none of them besides Wolf got the good feelings from helping people? It would have been so much more interesting if the character to speak up had been another of the crew. I’d nominate Shark, who seems the most good-natured of the group (he seems to enjoy dressing up and going in drag just for its own sake), or Piranha, who seems to mostly be bad because of anger issues and has an earlier moment where he sings to distract and clearly enjoys himself. (That would also make the worst character in the film somewhat useful. Piranha seems to exist solely to push out immature fart jokes and be too stupid to be believable).

Having another character want to be good would allow Wolf to potentially find allies, and suggest that it’s not that Wolf is “one of the good ones,” but that there’s the potential for just about anyone. It would take one of the mostly superfluous crew and give them a role that moves beyond just being an umber to flesh out a gang. The film would just have been so much more interesting with that move, particularly if they carried it forward, by having the crew member not want to get involved in any more heists. That would even let the film play to its strength, having to work around a missing piece of their well coordinated heists.

The film also misses another chance to be really interesting. Later in the film, most of the crew does decide to help Wolf, again acting more like a single character than various individuals. Snake’s been arguing with Wolf on a personal level, as they’re friends and the only one the other trusts or something. He’s also determined that there’s no way to make good, and therefore he decides to join the film’s real bad guy (it’s the guinea pig; it’s telegraphed so loudly the character might as well have “I’m the villain” taped to his back).

Keeping Snake bad would’ve been great. It would’ve shown that while rehabilitation is possible, some people don’t want help. It could be that society’s beaten them down, or that they’re just not good people.

This has been done in several animated shows before. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Steven Universe are both known for converting their enemies to goodness instead of defeating them in a more traditional way. And both shows also have characters that just refuse to be reformed, that have decided to choose badness.

Making Snake one of those characters would’ve really added to the film. It could have made the crew think about their goodness. They already play with the fact that the crew just can’t leave Snake, that saving him is part of what will really prove their goodness.

But instead of doing that, they decide that Snake was good all along and was playing the guinea pig. I admit, this is revealed in one of those clever twists that plays into the heist formula, so they are relying on a strong suit there.

it’s just so frustrating, because this stylish, genuinely funny film had the potential to say something important. It was dancing dangerously close to some really cool ideas that could have had lasting weight. It could’ve been as much a classic as some older Dreamworks films, or the modern Disney films it seems to be aping (if this came out at the same time as Zootopia, it would’ve felt like a director competitor).

Instead, just as they’re touching something new and cool, they fall back onto tropes. They do know how to play up those tropes, particularly for comedic value, but it’s still disappointing. I was really looking forward to this film. Its animation looks slick, and its ad campaign had been all kinds of interesting. But I ended my watch being incredibly frustrated, and, frankly, disappointed that the film wasn’t willing to take some more risks.

The Bad Guys is by no means a bad film, but it had the potential to be a truly great one.


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