‘The Bad Guys’ Film Review: Talking Animals Meet 1970s Caper in Amusing Animated Comedy

The characters could be deeper, but the throwbacks to vintage Saturday-morning cartoons make this one stand out from the pack

The Bad Guys

This review for “The Bad Guys” was originally published on March 29, 2022.

Billed as “a caper,” there’s something refreshingly old-fashioned and simple about “The Bad Guys.”

No singing, no dancing, no moral lessons — it’s just a cartoon, with fast-talking, wise-cracking animals, lots of silly car chases and a host of fart gags.

Based on the comic books by Australian author Aaron Blabey and riffing on the heist-movie genre, “The Bad Guys” follows a band of bank-robbing villains. They’re not so much Reservoir Dogs as Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Shark, and Ms. Tarantula who, in public penance for their criminal ways, are sworn to go straight. For a bit.

Half the fun is trying to work out who’s doing the voice work. In a knowing nod to the “Ocean’s” movies, the handsome, silver-grey Mr. Wolf is continually being likened in the script to George Clooney, although he’s voiced by Sam Rockwell, a performance I’d actually very much like to have witnessed in the live-action flesh.

The film’s diversity comes in the rest of the voice casting, with Anthony Ramos (“In the Heights”) playing the fiery and flatulent Piranha and Awkwafina as the tech-savvy Tarantula, who uses all eight legs working speedily on several keyboards to hack police computers and security systems.

Marc Maron is hapless sidekick Snake, while Craig Robinson has great fun with his lumbering Shark, always dressing up in completely useless disguises. (In his defense, just you try hiding a dorsal fin.)

The cast is rounded out by Zazie Beetz as a foxy local governor and Alex Borstein as a perpetually thwarted police chief lumbered with the superbly cartoonish name of Luggins. Finally, there’s Richard Ayoade’s Professor Marmelade, a billionaire guinea-pig evil mastermind (it’s the English accent, you see), whose pious yet popular front allows him to turn the eponymous baddies into heroes for his own malevolent plans.

Written by Etan Cohen (“Holmes & Watson”), this is a very busy, over-stuffed caper, with twists, tangents, and incidental scenes that whizz by under the fast and furious direction of French animator Pierre Perifel, who channels a 1970s vibe with a funky score composed by the prolific Daniel Pemberton (Apple TV+’s “The Afterparty”) and visual references to everything from “Bullitt” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” to “The Blues Brothers” and “The Hot Rock.”

In this age of super-smooth CGI animation, Perifel quaintly opts for a more Saturday-morning-TV aesthetic of a prime Hanna-Barbera vintage. That said, in its throwback, kinetic frenzy, this DreamWorks film does suffer from a lack of emotional momentum, missing out on the sort of all-around character development we’ve come to expect in the Pixar age. The bad guys might be going straight, but quite often, the whole thing feels like it’s drifting into chaos.

Diverting as it may be, “The Bad Guys” is the sort of movie that’s missing a big heart and, at times, feels like they’re having more fun in the ADR booth than we are watching it on screen. But there are gags aplenty (some of them are even funny), a surreal chase climax involving an unfinished motorway, a helicopter, a meteorite and a lethal tidal wave of hypnotized guinea pigs. Like the film’s premise suggests, nothing this fun-looking can be all bad.

“The Bad Guys” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.