“The Bad Guys” takes a look at the animals that make us want to scream, squeal and squash them, and asks why that’s the case.
Based on a series of graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, the animated comedy follows a group of animal criminals who are having a really great time stealing stuff. The leader of the pack is Wolf (voice of Sam Rockwell, continuing his streak of improving any movie by at least 10 percent). Wolf is basically Danny Ocean with a tail. In fact, much of “The Bad Guys” is a nod, a wink and a nudge to “Ocean’s Eleven,” down to the storytelling, visual style and some very specific jokes: Wolf puts the moves on a female fox by going “full Clooney.” (In this California-like fantasia, much of the population is human, while the main protagonists are animals. And some of them are species that shouldn’t be able to walk or breathe oxygen. Just go with it.)
Wolf’s comrades are the curmudgeonly Snake (Marc Maron); the master of disguise Shark (Craig Robinson); Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a fish with an anger management problem; and the tech whiz Tarantula (Awkwafina). They’re at the top of their game when the movie starts. People are so scared of them that they can pretty much saunter into the bank of their choice, point at the money and walk out without threatening anyone. Life is good.
Of course, every heist movie needs one last job, and this one targets an award given to the state’s most do-gooding creature — in this case, a guinea pig named Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade). Wolf and the rest of the gang want to enter their names into the criminal hall of fame by snatching the trophy. The heist goes wrong, naturally, and the gang ends up on the receiving end of Marmalade’s rehabilitation instincts, with the professor — Henry Higgins-like — betting that he can remake these bad guys into model citizens.
The film addresses an intriguing question: Why are the bad guys bad? They have no choice, according to Wolf. Every story has a villain: the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the great white in “Jaws,” the wolf in “The Three Little Pigs.” What’s the point of trying to get on anyone’s good side? It doesn’t matter how nice Tarantula is; whenever she shows up, people start looking for a heavy book to flatten her with. Might as well monetize the fear.
Still, as Wolf learns more about the benefits of being good, he kind of likes it. That opens a rupture between him and his longtime accomplices, and eventually he’ll have to make a choice.
The animation — particularly during the plentiful action sequences, and especially during the car chases — is sharp and fast and wonderful to watch. As in the “Ocean’s” movies, there are some nifty edits that bring sophistication to the look of the film, despite some stumbles. Case in point: Wolf, like other characters with fur, has a very fuzzy body, but the rendering of his face is so smooth, it looks like he’s gone a little overboard with the Instagram filter. DreamWorks Animation is known for cutting corners when compared with, say, Pixar: It’s easier and faster to render facial expressions if you don’t have to worry about every whisker. But it’s unnerving. There’s also a lack of emotion in the protagonists’ eyes. The uniformly excellent voice acting helps compensate for that, but the cast can only do so much.
The moral of the story doesn’t pack a huge wallop. Not that it needs to. (We can’t all be “Encanto.”) Still, it’s clever, visually interesting and very, very funny. Even when the humor goes lowbrow, it makes narrative sense. A joke about flatulence is a lot funnier when it’s essential to the plot. “The Bad Guys” gets that.
In fact, “The Bad Guys” gets a lot of things. It knows precisely what it is — and what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a heist film with heart and humor, and where’s the crime in that?
PG. At area theaters. Contains action and rude humor. 100 minutes.