The Bad Guys (2022)

Over the past ten years, major American animation studios (mostly excluding Walt Disney Animation Studios) have finally 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, the future of animation has been turning out films with aggressively stylized looks and effects. And I am absolutely here for it.

This trend reached its apex with the terrific Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s not the only film to emphasize that CGI is more interesting when it’s not trying to mimic live action film. We’ve also seen this mindset in the The Mitchells vs. The Machines, The Boss Baby movies, Turning Red, and a handful of others.

The king of CGI in recent years has been, against all odds, Dreamworks. Once the pariah of mainstream animation due to its dinky ethos of the 2000s, the studio has become the most interesting and, frankly, most reliable animation studio of the late 2010’s and 2020’s.

The Bad Guys is the latest Dreamworks movie and the biggest step away from photorealism by one of the studios yet. It’s one of the most visually stirring animated films ever rendered by computer. 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 of a post-Ocean’s cinematic landscape therein. (I did a double take when I saw the screenwriting credit to “Etan Cohen” before realizing that this is a very different person from “Ethan Coen.” Pesky “h” shifting around.)

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 for shameless criminals. 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 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. It has no interest in interrogating the notion of “good vs. bad” except in the most shallow ways. There are no stakes for whether jewel heists are completed — no real victims or suffering or moral complexity. “Badness” is the equivalent of wearing sunglasses.

It doesn’t help that 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 are furries but haven’t yet realized it (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.

The Bad Guys totally whimpers through its narrative. Anyone who knows the heist genre won’t be surprised, even once, and there’s a weird blandness to the character arcs. I had no interest in whether Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake reunited, nor whether the duplicitous guinea pig voiced by Richard Ayoade gets his comeuppance.

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.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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2 replies on “The Bad Guys (2022)”

hahah, i love your “is it good / _____ good” rating system, dan! very fun. & great review—i’ve remained curious about this one because i love anything that even vaguely gestures at having an antihero main character, but sounds like it doesn’t reeeeally get there.

Thanks, Rioghnach! Glad you swung by. Other people are slightly higher on it than I am, so maybe you’d get a kick out of it? Cheers!

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