(Warning: This film contains spoilers for The Bad Guys. The film’s only been out in the world for a little over two months as of writing this, so there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. If you have any interest in watching The Bad Guys, please click away from this article and do something else. Pet a cat. They’re lovely this time of year.)
I haven’t watched a Dreamworks film in a long time. I know the studio’s got a storied and impactful history in the world of modern American animation, but nothing from their filmography since 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2 has gotten more out of me than bewilderment or boredom. They exist, make films that sometimes get popular or well-liked for reasons I can’t really grasp, and I’m more than happy to have all that happen on the furthest peripheries of my existence.
Not so with The Bad Guys. Although I ignored the publicity following the announcement trailer that seeked to give too much of the game away, I was fascinated to see a DW film that was trying something which appealed to me for the first time in years. A heist movie featuring a cast of funny animals, all of it rendered in an more illustrative style that seeks to avoid the usual realistic or Disneyfied aesthetical trappings of mainstream American CGI films. For the first time in a good few years, I actually wanted to watch a modern US cartoon movie.
Luckily, I got my chance the other day when I decided to pop into town and see it in the cinema (more on this aspect at the very bottom of the article). Apart from pictures posted on the World Animation Discord and discussions that I glossed over, I didn’t really know what to expect beyond the hope that it might be good. And it was. Very good, even.
I was quite pleasantly surprised to find it’s just a heist film in the Ocean’s film trilogy vein. Extensive heists with the gang’s plans playing out as they’re discussing it – complete with various split-screen shots showing off everyone’s role. A mix of boisterous jazz-funk music and fitting licensed tunes play off the scenes, with camera cuts and actions happening in time to the music. Wolf’s full-charm assault on Diane is even referred to as “the Clooney”, referring to that particular breed of confident schmoozing George Clooney exuded as Danny Ocean.
What’s more, the whole thing is played very straight. Instead of presenting a degree of self-awareness of the genre or some metatextual commentary, The Bad Guys just gives you a heist movie that fell right out of the 2000s. This allows the comedy to come from the elements featured within the film – the slapstick, the character dynamics, and the ridiculousness of what goes on – and the same goes for the more sincere and emotional moments.
It’s presented with such confidence in pretty much every way, from the more obvious elements such as the exuberant animation and the tightly delivered dialogue to subtler aspects like the on-point scoring or the use of colour in suggesting moods. This film knows what it is, thinks that it’s cool and then makes sure that you know why it’s cool. I gotta agree with it there, as I found it deeply charming and compelling.
As a case of pure spectacle, there’s a lot to enjoy here. But as a narrative, I must admit that the more I think about it, the more I find myself becoming apathetic towards it.
On its own, it’s a perfectly solid heist film with crazy schemes and a core cast of likeable rogues bouncing off each other. There’s a sense of relatability to their friendships, even a degree of physical intimacy that made me smile. (Platonic as it was probably intended, I was rather caught off-guard by Snake plainly telling Wolf “I love you too” at the end.)
The throughline the movie establishes to tie everything together works fine when taken as an individual work. But there are elements which pulled me out of it. The third act kicks off with the “lowest point after a high” moment where everything goes wrong due to an unresolved tension. The cute and innocent Professor Rupert Marmalade IV is revealed to be the real villain of the piece. The final heist’s conclusion is flipped on its head by a series of secret bait-and-switches.
I’m not one to notice or even complain about the nature of storytelling as an artificial construction. The idea of three-act structures having strong emotional contrasts is a straightforward way of creating and understanding the different beats that can make up a compelling story. Seeing a character presented in an entirely different light recontextualizes everything they’ve done up to that point, providing a reason to re-examine the work. Why not add mini-heists on top of the big heists already being pulled off, to show how crafty this band of thieves really are?
But where this becomes a problem is if you’ve seen any other film in the same field. Whether we’re talking Dreamworks animated movies, post-2010 mainstream American cartoon films, or heist movies: these are all well-worn storytelling concepts in their respective groups. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it means that it becomes very easy to see the artifice in these concepts and lose interest in the work.
I have to admit that when the third act kicked off, I started losing interest in The Bad Guys. I saw what they were doing, the same old thing I’d seen in a dozen other movies, and repeatedly thought to myself “Oh, they’re doing this again? Fine, whatever.”
“Fine, whatever,” is not a phrase you wanna be thinking when experiencing a work that’s otherwise grabbed your attention as much as this had.
The movie did manage to keep up my interest with revealing Diane as the Scarlet Paw (admittedly something that was hinted well in advance), with her antics resulting in some of the best scenes such as the prison fight and the highway truck chase. But that problem never really goes away.
It presents something of an unfortunate dichotomy: while the visuals and animation style present a mainstream US cartoon film quite unlike any other, the storytelling structure still conforms to the expectations of how those cartoon films should be done. There’s one foot in the unfamiliar and exciting, and the other stuck in the old and overdone.
I do believe it’s still worth watching The Bad Guys. If you’re a fan of that particular Ocean’s trilogy breed of heist films, or just looking to see an animated American film in the mainstream do something visually compelling, I’d recommend it with little qualms. If only to admire the sheer confidence on display, even.
But those qualms are there: this feeling of narratively going through the motions because this is what we have to do in animated films, heist movies or whathaveyou. The film seems to be doing quite well in terms of critical reception and bringing in the cash, so I can only hope that it will encourage the people behind this movie to branch out even further, to somehow surpass the standard storytelling guff holding it back.
The many folks who created The Bad Guys made a modern American cartoon film I enjoyed. Now, I hope they can make one that I love.
(A brief note on the cinema experience.
This was my first time watching something in a movie theatre since a local screening of Dragon Ball Super: Broly in January 2020. something something pandemic et cetera. And it will probably be the last time, certainly in a big public cinema.
The experience of watching The Bad Guys was perfectly fine, but the litany of ads which preceded it was unbearable. The sound mixing had the ads playing at several decibels louder than the movie, which was already awful when I easily suffer from sensory overload triggered by loud noises. But the use of modern music sensibilities with big horns and bashing electronic percussion turned it into a living nightmare.
I had to spend the entire 10+ minutes-period listening to music on my 3DS and repeatedly convincing myself not to leave the theatre because I wanted to see the film. I know a lot of discussion has been had over the need and validity of cinemas as a movie-watching experience, but I can personally say that the entire concept of seeing a film inside a movie theatre can go to the nearest black hole.)
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.