It’s clear we are only now seeing the seismic, industry-wide impact that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse has had. Since that film’s release in 2018, animated films in Hollywood have learned to be bolder, weirder and more experimental. The Bad Guys is no Spider-Verse, but it’s a fascinating example of a major studio (in this case, DreamWorks) making some brave creative choices they might not have made just a few years previously.
The first and most obvious choice is the style of animation: as with Spider-Verse, The Mitchells Vs The Machines or Arcane before it, The Bad Guys takes a lovely 3D-but-with-a-2D-feel approach, opting for stylisation over realism. It gives the film a more handmade look than the plasticky sheen of standard CG fare. In contrast to the kinds of animation that would often emerge from the Hollywood machine, this seems deliberately designed.
If the aesthetic feels rich and distinctive, it’s a shame, then, that the plot and characters run a little thin. Playing, naturally, on heist-movie tropes — there’s a brassy score from Daniel Pemberton, and freeze-frame titles introducing the furry cast — it’s really a fairly basic story (adapted from the children’s graphic novels of the same name by Aaron Blabey) with some fairly basic lessons baked in. The baddies are learning how to become goodies — that’s basically it. Within that, there’s a magpie’s nest of recent influences — the slick-talking animals of Zootropolis, the bad guys’ support group from Wreck-It Ralph — that makes it hard for this not to feel a tad derivative. Unlike those films, which had clearly defined in-universe rules, it’s also never satisfactorily explored why our antiheroes inhabit a world where humans and talking animals mix, beyond the obvious reasons that it’s going for a younger target audience.
Still, it’s a universe that manages to occasion some genuinely witty visual comedy: an army of hypnotised guinea pigs, for example, or the piranha who farts when he lies, or the snake forced to ineffectually wear handcuffs on its neck. The character animation is fast and funny, rarely stopping for breath and finding humour in small details. The voice cast make a decent stab, too — especially Sam Rockwell as gang leader Mr. Wolf, whose performance in the recording booth is effortlessly cool and pleasingly naturalistic. The Bad Guys won’t quite leave a seismic, industry-wide impact on animation, but then, few can — if this is what major studios are going to be pumping out now, it’s a good sign.