Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Everyone! Even if he wears a sharp suit, drives a fancy car, and pulls bank robberies for fun? Especially then!
What if he’s voiced by the always rakishly beguiling Sam Rockwell? Cuz then you have The Bad Guys, a snappy, snarky, never-ever sentimental concoction of cartoon chaos meets hip heist flick. You know, for kids… and grownups, too. (There are layers at work here.)
If everyone is predisposed to be scared of you anyway, why not lean into it? That’s the attitude under which Wolf (Rockwell: Trolls: World Tour, Richard Jewell), a pickpocket and all-around thief, and his criminal gang operate. His gang? Oh, there’s Snake (the voice of Marc Maron: Joker, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), a safecracker; Shark (the voice of Craig Robinson: Songbird, Hot Tub Time Machine 2), a master of disguise; Piranha (the voice of Anthony Ramos: In the Heights, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), the tiny-but-terrifying muscle; and Tarantula (the voice of Awkwafina: Raya and the Last Dragon, Jumanji: The Next Level), the hacker. An actual rogues gallery of creatures humans are afraid of, often with little justification but with a lot of accompanying biocultural baggage.
Yes, humans are the dominant species here; The Bad Guys is nothing like a retread of 2016’s Zootopia, though the two movies do share some thematic motifs regarding stereotypes and the impacts they have on us. In fact, there don’t seem to be any other wolf-people or shark-people strolling around their West Coast–ish city, which raises the question of just what caused these particular animals to acquire human-level intelligence, sentience, a taste for luxury goods, and rap sheets. Are they trickster demigods who have descended to our plane to mess with us? (I have another idea, which suggests that film is tantalizingly flirting with some rather profound religio-philosophical notions, but it’s something of a spoiler, so I’ll hold off on that for now.)
The film opens with a genuinely thrilling car chase — one of the best I’ve seen onscreen in a long while — as Wolf and his buddies lead the cops on a merry automotive tour of their unnamed town. (It’s a lot like Los Angeles but has massive hillsides like San Francisco.) The breezy swagger of the sequence extends to the delightful animation style: computer generated but with an organic lightness that reminds me of watercolors, shot through with a golden haziness that lends a mellow insouciance; it’s hot and cool at the same time, and not like anything we’ve seen before onscreen at all.
To be fair, the whole movie is breezy swagger, which only escalates when Wolf makes the unexpected discovery, as he comes to the assistance of a little old lady who is effusive with her thanks, that being good can be as satisfying as being bad. His tail traitorously (hilariously!) wags on its own at this, betraying him… and he is horrified. So he doubles down on embracing the bad by concocting a grand scheme in which the gang will pretend to become decent upstanding citizens as a way to get out of being prosecuted for their first failed heist (which may have failed in part because Wolf was so distracted by his personal epiphany).
This requires suavely convincing first the law-and-order governor, Diane Foxington (the voice of Zazie Beetz: Seberg, Deadpool 2), that he and his partners in crime are worthy and capable of reform, and then their benefactor, famed millionaire philanthropist Professor Marmalade (the voice of Richard Ayoade: The Mandalorian, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) that they’ve actually been reformed. This demands Looney Tunes–esque madness, encompassing an artifact in the form of a heart-shaped meteor — there is *gulp* an impact crater smack in the middle of this city; the disastrous backstory is sidestepped — a veritable tsunami of guinea pigs (yes, really), and much more.
(Foxington, by the way, is a fox. Marmalade is a guinea pig, though not like the simply lowly rodents of the tsunami. They, too, are rare outliers for their species in their sentience, their personhood. Though obviously the humans are okay with electing them to high office and elevating them to megacelebrity.)
Working from the middle-school books by Aaron Blabey, DreamWorks animator turned first-time director Pierre Perifel whips kiddie-friendly lessons (ones that grownups can always use reminders of) into frothy fun: stick by your friends; don’t be deceived by surface appearances, including the ones we see on social media; and embrace second (and third) chances. Wolf and his pals may be bad, but The Bad Guys is all good.