Brutal honesty time. DreamWorks has not been at the top of their game for some time. The last of their films that I thought was OK was Trolls — way back in 2016. The last time they wowed me? Twelve years ago with How to Train Your Dragon in 2010. They’ve given up their mantle of the “best studio behind Disney and Pixar” to relative newcomers like Illumination and Laika, the now defunct Blue Sky, and a resurging Warner Bros. For some reason over the past decade they’ve gone… bad. Can they be rehabilitated and become one of the good guys again?

The Bad Guys are one of the most feared and successful criminal enterprises in town. But when a moment of doubt by their leader gets them nabbed, the quick-thinking Mr. Wolf gets them a chance at redemption — if they can pretend to be good while supposedly being reformed.

The story centers around a heist, and the filmmakers have gone out of their way to get the various tropes of the genre right. Adult fans of films like The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs will be smiling at all the nods while they watch with their children. And while the tone is definitely kid-friendly, the plot itself has not been dumbed down for their sakes. Not being able to see where things are going too easily is vital for a film with so many twists and turns, allowing both grown-ups and kids alike to get caught up trying to figure it out before the end.

For an animated film about bad guys becoming good guys, it would’ve been easy to lay on the moral message too thick. Thankfully, the writers don’t fall into the trap. The Bad Guys aren’t that bad when they’re being bad, but they’re also not that good when they’re being good. Their personalities aren’t defined solely by which side they’re on — they’re the same people they always were, just with some different motivations at different times. In other words, (mild spoilers ahead:) they’re still fun and interesting characters by the time we get to the inevitable happy ending.

While a compelling story and interesting characters are vital to good movies, it’s the addition of humor that helps really set apart the most enjoyable animated films. Here, The Bad Guys delivers the goods. A lot of the heavy lifting comes from the way they play with the conventions of the genre. For example, the cliched “hacker” character who is always seen typing away furiously is a tarantula — so when typing away furiously isn’t cutting it, her laptop ridiculously sprouts more keyboards allowing her to use more hands. The stereotypical “master of disguise” character is a giant shark — who no matter the disguise always looks like a giant shark… but still always fools everyone.

The animation is a departure from the DreamWorks norm. Rather than perfect CG models and effects, the film has a more hand drawn feel, like a mix of their usual style with Into the Spider-Verse and Looney Tunes added in. The overall effect is charmingly beautiful, but also gives the entire production a lot of energy and fun it wouldn’t have had with just out-of-the-box, plodding CG. Character animation is stellar across the line-up, with each extremely varied role (wolf, shark, tarantula, shark, piranha, fox, guinea pig and more) all getting distinctive touches that make their persona feel unique and fresh compared to all the others.

The voice crew assembled for this team is what really elevates things past “just a kids movie” into a really good heist film. Sam Rockwell as Mr. Wolf, Marc Maron as Mr. Snake, Anthony Ramos as Mr. Piranha, Craig Robinson as Mr. Shark, Awkwafina as Ms. Tarantula, and Zazie Beetz as Diane Foxington voiced characters that could have fit in with the cast of Ocean’s Eleven without missing a step. As good as all the other components of the movie were, like a good heist, I’m not sure the filmmakers could have pulled it off without this crew.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an animated film this much in theaters… and much, much longer still since that film was from DreamWorks! Like their title characters, it’s great to see them leaving their bad days behind and moving on to do good.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

The Bad Guys
Universal, DreamWorks
100 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Pierre Perifel