‘The Bad Guys’: A Gang of Animal Crooks Deliver a Great Lesson in Goodness 

Antiheroes have been all the rage lately. DreamWorks’ “The Bad Guys” refashions this concept for younger audiences with plenty of creative energy. Good animated movies can appeal to both the kids and the adults sitting next to them in the theater. This one never veers too much away from specifically catering to viewers still learning how to read, but it’s also sharp in its slapstick chortles. All clean cut stories have goodies and baddies. “The Bad Guys” dives into lessons that actually become more complex when you sit back and ponder them. Someone may be inclined to break the rules, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to be better. A villain can deep down still have an urge to give a hug and share snacks.

The main characters are a criminal gang, the Bad Guys, made up of all those animals readily associated with danger. There’s Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Tarantula (Awkwafina), Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Shark (Craig Robinson) and Snake (Marc Maron). This gang basks in pulling off wild heists that leave the cops powerless to catch them. But when they see a government official named Diana Foxington (Zazie Beetz) mock them on TV, Wolf decides to pull off an even bigger steal involving a golden dolphin award. Alas, the Bad Guys get caught and put in cuffs. But before they can be sent off to the slammer for good, a billionaire philanthropist, Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), proposes a unique experiment. He will prove that the Bad Guys can be reformed to be good. 

This rather high-octane thriller for kids is based on a series of popular books by Aaron Blabey and wonderfully combines action with wit. Think of it as a family-friendly “The Italian Job” that hopefully instills a decent message. For general viewers, it’s a breezy homage to a whole genre. An opening action sequence winks at everything from “Dog Day Afternoon” to Michael Bay. Other classics like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Heat” seem to be obvious inspirations for director Pierre Perifel, making his feature directorial debut. The Bad Guys themselves are appropriately goofy riffs on heist movie archetypes. Wolf is the slick crew leader, always dressed in a jacket and slacks, openly referencing George Clooney. Shark is the muscle, Tarantula the tech operator while Piranha is the required maniac who yells, “crazy is what I bring to the party!” Snake has personal insecurities that serve the plot very well in terms of the ideas the story wants to express. Diana Foxington is on the side of the law and inevitably starts getting dangerously close to Wolf. 

For DreamWorks Animation this is a nice little success. Since its founding, the studio has always aimed high, going back to those early opuses like “The Prince of Egypt” and “Shrek.” This one belongs to that spirited bunch like “Zootopia” and “Megamind.” There’s almost a sense of refreshing freedom in knowing you’re not carrying the weight of Disney expectations. Some greater freedom is then allowed in the material. You can sense the pure joy of the animators in “The Bad Guys” while designing sequences that play like legitimate action movie pieces, like a shot worthy of “Point Break” of Snake falling through the air from a crashing helicopter while his buddies race to catch him. Tarantula gets one of the best recent moments that form part of the never-ending nods at the famous, dangling from wires scene in “Mission: Impossible.” A few jokes are allowed to be edgier in a family-friendly sense, like Shark discussing a cousin who was left swimming in circles after being hit on the head by an anchor. 

Along with the stylistic fun, “The Bad Guys” genuinely finds an admirable way to explore its topic without even getting too preachy. Snake shocks the crew by offering a popsicle to a sad Shark, and when he tries to quickly explain he was just trying to be considerate, Tarantula has to clarify that’s what it means to be good. Somehow this movie makes being rebellious seem fun while also exploring the need to be honest, do good deeds and truly care for your friends. Of course Professor Marmalade is not all that he seems to be. But in this movie younger viewers will get some strong lessons about hypocrisy as well. Not every public figure claiming to be saving the world is selfless. A loyal fellow misfit has more honor than a dishonest billionaire huckster. “The Bad Guys” packages brisk entertainment with sharp laughs, adrenaline and by the end credits, impressive food for thought. It’s a heist done well. 

The Bad Guys” releases April 22 in theaters nationwide.