At some point in the past five years, American animation studios (mostly excluding Walt Disney Animation Studios) realized that the path forward to improving their visual language was not enhancing the photorealism of their animation. It’s unlikely they would be able to top what Pixar was doing in The Incredibles 2 or in Toy Story 4, anyways. Instead, they’ve been turning out films with aggressively stylized looks and effects. And I am absolutely here for it.
This trend kicked off in earnest sometime around the terrific Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Or, at least, that’s the moment I really started paying attention. We’ve also seen it in The Mitchells vs. The Machines, The Boss Baby movies, Turning Red, and a handful of others.
The Bad Guys is the latest entry in this trend, and it’s one of the most visually stirring of the bunch. The effects are exaggerated and cartoony, and the backgrounds are faux-watercolors, but the most striking element is the texturing. Characters and objects are coated with deliberately lo-fi swaths of solid colors and smooth lighting. It reminds me of video game animation style I always saw labeled as “cel-shaded.”
I’m not enough of a CGI junkie to declare in more specific terms what you call this style or exactly how it works, but it definitely does work. Even with fairly generic character designs, The Bad Guys pops off the screen. I really wish I had seen this in theaters, because I can only imagine how visually immersive it must’ve been on a big screen.
Unfortunately for The Bad Guys, there is more to a movie than its look. Alas, this doesn’t bring much to the storytelling table other than “Kiddos’ First Heist Movie,” with all the expected twists and backstabs therein. (I did a double take when I saw the screenwriting credit to “Ethan Cohen” before realizing that this is a very different person from “Ethan Coen.”)
The movie follows a group of seasoned thieves who have their eyes on their biggest job yet, the theft of a big trophy given to city do-gooders. It’s kind of an odd heist prize, but it at least works symbolically. After the job inevitably goes wrong towards the end of the first act, the titular bad guys are signed up for a rehabilitation program. Their plan is to fake moral growth, be freed, and continue a life of crime. Alas, the group leader, a wolf named… uh… Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), starts to accidentally “catch morals.” Will he be seduced by a life of virtue, or hold steady onto his values of thievery?
On paper, it’s a very clever premise: A slippery-slope-of-crime story in reverse, with mirrored versions of every expected beat. The problem is that the story isn’t nearly fun or smart enough to execute the idea. The characters are totally forgettable. There’s a best-friend snake (Mark Maron), a romantic interest fox who is the town’s mayor and is sure to awaken something in viewers who hadn’t previously realized they’re furries (Zazie Beetz), and a few others. Oddly, some of the characters are normal humans, including a short-tempered police-woman who gets some fun comic set pieces.
It’s worth a watch if you’re an animation aestheticist or really dig heist stories, but I can’t say I’d recommend The Bad Guys to your typical moviegoer. If you really want some fun animated visuals, just go watch Spider-Verse again, or Boss Baby if you missed that blast of weirdness.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film