Within the first two minutes of the retro-cool and warmhearted animated crime thriller spoof “The Bad Guys,” we can tell we’re in for something refreshingly original—because those two minutes (and change) consist of a single, unbroken shot in a diner that is a clear homage to the prologue of “Pulp Fiction,” and how about that.
In this anthropomorphic version of Los Angeles, a wolf named Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) and a snake named Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) are in a booth and dressed like corny tourists as Mr. Wolf chides Mr. Snake for refusing to partake in some birthday cake.
“Name one food better than cake,” says Mr. Wolf.
Dreamworks Animation presents a film directed by Pierre Perifel and written by Etan Cohen, based on the book series by Aaron Blabey. Rated PG (for action and rude humor). Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
“Guinea pig,” replies Mr. Snake, and they might as well be debating the merits of pork a la Jules and Vincent in “Pulp.” The two old friends casually exit the diner and make their way to a bank for another in a long line of heists, and away we go on this clever, visually arresting and well-voiced adventure, with the French animator Pierre Perifel making an impressive feature directorial debut in adapting Aaron Blabey’s children’s book series of the same name.
Rockwell’s Mr. Wolf turns to the camera and calls in closer as he lays out the plight of the Canis lupus, noting, “I am the villain in every story,” as we see a montage of famous fairy tales, from “Little Red Riding Hood” to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” to “The Three Little Pigs” to “Peter and the Wolf.” Mr. Wolf introduces us to his crew, consisting of animals who are almost always, well, the bad guys in animated fare, including Mr. Snake and also:
- Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), a quick-witted tech expert.
- Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a hot-headed and unpredictable wild card who’s kinda crazy.
- Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), a master of deception who once stole the Mona Lisa while disguised AS the Mona Lisa.
They are … the Reservoir Not-Dogs. They are … the Bad Guys.
Even as Gov. Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) publicly derides The Bad Guys as yesterday’s news (“They are really just has-beens. … I mean really, another bank?”), Mr. Wolf and the crew plan their most brazen heist yet—a theft of the coveted Golden Dolphin Award at a lavish ceremony in which “this year’s goodest citizen” will be honored. When the job goes sideways and The Bad Guys are finally apprehended, the famously philanthropic and lovably cute guinea pig Professor Rupert Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), who says if there was a contest between him and Mother Teresa for the kindest person ever it would be a tie, volunteers to take custody of The Bad Guys in a social experiment to see if he can reform them.
Prof. Marmalade: “They say experience is the best teacher, and they are wrong. I am.”
The Bad Guys view this is an opportunity to scam the world and pull off an even bigger heist, this time involving a meteor that is the ultimate power source—but there’s a twist, as it appears Mr. Wolf has truly bought into the belief a wolf doesn’t always have to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and can actually become a Good Guy. This leads to a rift within the ranks, and some pretty neat twists and turns and reveals, with the actors doing wonderful voice work while “The Bad Guys” serves up nods to classic crime films such as “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Bullitt,” “The Italian Job,” “The Hot Rock” and “Snatch”—but mostly Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels. When Mr. Wolf turns on the charm it’s said he’s “pulling a Clooney,” and the friendship between Mr. Wolf and his best buddy Mr. Snake is reminiscent of the dynamic between Clooney and Pitt in the “Ocean’s” films. Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy score and the use of split-screen techniques showing the big heist from different points of view only add to this greatly entertaining tribute.
The animation combines computer-generated 2D and 3D with a look that will remind you of a Saturday-morning cartoon—only much crisper and more dazzling. There’s nothing photorealistic about the animation; it’s stylized and has very specific definition of Heist Movie Los Angeles, with the sky so bright it’s almost overexposed, and yet somehow creating a bit of a noir vibe. This is a great-looking film with terrific performances, some lovely messaging and a steady parade of solid laughs—some the kids will enjoy and just as many targeted squarely at the grown-up kids in the audience.