“The Bad Guys” is almost 2022’s perfect family movie.
Based on the trailer, the new animated feature from DreamWorks and Universal Pictures looks like a cross between “Megamind” (also DreamWorks, 2010) and Disney’s “Zootopia” (2016). Once again, we meet an outcast protagonist convinced the world will always see him as a villain and who runs with that role until he finds a reason for being a hero instead.
But this heist comedy, directed by Pierre Perifel, is no copycat movie. Why? The Big Bad Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and his crew are just too wickedly cool.
With more smarts than “Megamind,” more slapstick humor than Zootopia’s Nick Wilde, and more quippy dialogue than both, the titular “Bad Guys” are instantly likable. In the opening scene, we meet Wolf and Snake (Marc Maron), bantering in a diner about how Snake hates birthdays. Harmless enough, right? But then Snake starts harping about how cute little guinea pigs are far more appetizing than cake. Before they stroll out of the diner, they leave a tip on the counter and salute the cowering customers huddled in the corner. Yes, these guys are bad, but they are also undeniably cool.
As we meet the rest of the gang, we find they have reason to be confident. They’re good at what they do, they have fun doing it together — and to top it all off, they’re a hilarious bunch. Take Shark’s (Craig Robinson) role as “master of disguise,” which ironically fools everyone in the film and no one in the audience. For kids and adults alike, seeing him waltz into a gala with his great white head ballooning out of a sparkling red dress, hips gently swaying and chin up, might be one of the funniest moments of the film.
Another character, Piranha (Anthony Ramos), has a tendency to interrupt any serious moment with a random question or a potty joke. They banter, they laugh, they steal, and then hacker-in-chief Tarantula (aka “Webs,” played by Awkwafina) cues the music for them to cruise away from the cops in style. It’s the family-friendly “Ocean’s Eleven” crew, with Mr. Wolf as its furry George Clooney.
The dilemma is that they can’t be Ocean’s Eleven forever — they have to find a reason to change and become “the good guys.” That’s easier said than done. After all, as the film’s movie poster points out, good is no fun at all.
At first, the only reason the gang even considers “going good” is so they can pull off the greatest con ever. It’s only when Wolf discovers that being good can actually make you feel good that he starts to think they might be missing out on a better life.
It’s a start, and it’s not wrong. The happy “wag” or “tingle” that the animals experience after doing a good deed points to real moral lessons, including the notion of conscience and the joy that comes from putting others’ needs first.
But what happens when being bad just feels more fun? Or, to phrase it in moral terms, why choose virtue when vice is so tempting? These are questions that “The Bad Guys” does not answer, at least not fully.
The “do good because it feels good” mantra really starts to break down when the ultimate villain (no spoiler here) turns it on its head. That character asserts that the exciting “tingle” comes from being selfish and destructive. Isn’t that what The Bad Guys were all about before? So when facing a bigger and badder guy, they need a better reason to stay on the good side.
There are moments in the film when it seems they might have discovered that reason, especially when one of them takes a risk or makes a sacrifice for the sake of another. Those instances imply that the deeper reason for doing good is love for a friend — looking outward rather than looking inward.
Still, it doesn’t quite come through. Whenever the gang talks about their newfound interest in being good, it’s all about that happy wag. If they learned anything else, we don’t hear about it, either in conversations among themselves or in a closing narrative monologue.
When first introduced to the idea of doing good to feel good, Webs asks skeptically, “So we’re going for a tingle?” In the end, the only clear answer we’re left with is Well … yeah.
Maybe “The Bad Guys” meant to give us something more, and a few scenes could spark conversation about what that something more might be. But on its own, the film didn’t quite stick the landing.
Still, as long as parents are ready, willing, and able to fill in those message gaps, “The Bad Guys” can be a movie for everyone. The silliness and slapstick make it accessible to young audiences, while the quick banter and plot twists keep it interesting for adults. Although it needs a follow-up conversation to drive the moral of the story home, “The Bad Guys” has the raw material of a family movie night favorite.