As you take your seat and the film begins, an unsettling sensation descends: Haven’t I seen this movie before?
THE BAD GUYS ★★ (2/4 stars)
The Bad Guys is an animated film about an anthropomorphic crew of the types of animals who often do dastardly things in children’s books— a wolf, a snake, a shark, etc.— leaning into their reputation and pulling off various criminal scores in the manner of action movie bandits. And though it opens for the first time in theaters this Friday, April 22, you can’t help shake that mysterious Sinbad-as-Shazam conviction that not only does this movie already exist, it’s currently gathering dust among a pile of half-forgotten DVDs somewhere in a corner of your apartment.
Perhaps it’s that Wolf, the charming con-artist-trying-to-make-good—voiced with a laidback swagger by Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell— feels so close in conception to Nick, the fox with a similar character arc deliciously brought to life by Jason Bateman in the 2016 Disney film Zootopia. Or that animals pulling capers was a concept already admirably staged in 2006’s Over the Hedge, which like this movie was produced by DreamWorks. Or the supervillain-with-a-heart-of-gold concept has been thoroughly wrung out with a similar sugar buzz hyperkinetic fervor by four Despicable Me and two Minions movies; those films, like this one, were distributed by Universal.
But then a few minutes in, as the Wolf and his partner, a grumpy Snake voiced by Marc Maron, bicker in a diner scene that deliberately yet subtlety calls to mind the Honey Bunny cold open of Pulp Fiction, you are struck with a different feeling altogether: sure, it might be tiresome eating canned goods for dinner, but it can nonetheless be tasty.
A few fresh spices help here, such as presenting a dreamlike Los Angeles in a grimy, ’70s movie palette, colors which come off as a welcome relief from the brain-straining ultra-bright hues typically used in movies like this.
There’s also a game cast of voice actors, most of which you wish turned up more often in live action movies. Chief among them is Richard Ayoade—a stand-out in last year’s The Souvenir: Part II—lending an irony laden brio to Professor Marmalade, a sanctimonious guinea pig do-gooder. Awkwafina, as a computer expert tarantula, lands less well.
Pierre Perifel, a longtime DreamWorks staffer who served as supervising animator on 2012’s Rise of the Guardians and here makes his feature-film debut as director, turns his movie into a cinephile’s smorgasbord.
The Bad Guys runneth over with loving but not overly overt nods to the movies of Tarantino, Friedkin, Soderbergh, Scorsese, and others. Each one of the crew’s jobs—a bank heist, a prison break, the rescuing of a lab full of guinea pigs (there is no explanation as to why some animals can talk and others can’t)—has its own distinct visual identity.
This cornucopia of homages ends up playing against the movie’s biggest weakness—that it’s so familiar that older audiences will never be able to shake a feeling of deja vu so extreme that they’ll be questioning whether what they sat through was a new experience at all.
But then who cares about older audiences? Even while throwing the adults a few referential bones to gnaw on, Perifel and screenwriter Etan Cohen (2012’s Men in Black 3 and a cowriter on 2008’s Tropic Thunder) keep the film squarely aimed at the moppets among us.
From its gas-passing piranha (voiced by In the Heights’ Anthony Ramos) to its reliance on phrases like “butt rock” and “grumpy pants” that seem grown in a lab to make the 12-and-under set giggle, the movie plays its target audience like a fiddle. That is music, no matter how familiar, that even the most cynical among us can enjoy.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.