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No One Is Beyond Redemption in ‘The Bad Guys’

There’s a hint of anarchy in DreamWorks’ latest animated feature. Films aimed at “the whole family” tend to get paired with simplistic morals, to make sure that younger audiences can easily follow along with who the good guys are and why they’re good. That makes sense, of course, but director Pierre Perifel wisely trusts his audience with a more nuanced dose of ethics in this movie, adapted from the books by Aaron Blabey. Instead of telling a story about good guys versus bad guys, this is a story about bad guys fighting a war within themselves.

Mr. Wolf is a legendary thief, voiced with debonair daring by Sam Rockwell. He’s joined by his team Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos) and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), who all love being bad. But when their backs are against the wall, the gang agrees to go straight as part of a deal to stay out of jail. It’s a con on their part — they have no intentions of following through — but the more time they spend as good guys, the more they warm to it.

Or do they?

“Their actions are not right,” Perifel tells RELEVANT. “But their hearts are good.”

Perifel infuses his film with an enormous amount of kinetic energy and rapid fire dialog, making sure that this family movie about crime really does feel like a heist caper. Imagine Quentin Tarantino doing Pixar, or Ocean’s Eleven by way of The Iron Giant. The animation is gorgeous, precise and just slightly rough in a way that feels deliberate — adding a little character to a medium that lends itself to plastic-y perfectionism. The slick, stylistic touches make it a lot of fun to watch, but it’s the story that will keep you coming back. The dizzying amount of visual verve and creative direction on screen helps a lot of the nuanced characterization go down easy, since our “heroes” are reacting to a ping pong ball plot that would do a number on anyone’s moral compass.

It feels a little controversial in today’s climate, in which social media often demands we paint with a broad brush in terms of who’s good and who isn’t. Headlines fly by too quickly for us to take a moment to acquaint ourselves with the human beings involved in them, so we use a few key points (political party, culture war side, etc.) to figure out who’s who and move on. But The Bad Guys puts the viewer in the position of being sympathetic for the villain. Perifel hopes audiences might apply that same perspective to what’s going on in the world around them.

“Make sure that you unturn every rock and look underneath,” he says. “Learn about somebody before you make up your mind. There’s an immense power in redemption. There’s also an immense power in giving second chances.”

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When you think about it, redemption and second chances aren’t often the fare of family movies, where the point is to make sure that bad people get their just desserts or else, sometimes, to reveal that deep down, they were never really the bad guy. But this movie turns that on its head: What if our heroes are bad guys, but are still worthy of a second chance?

“That’s the message of this film. We’re all human,” Perifel says. “We’re all flawed. We all make mistakes. Yet we condemn people that make mistakes so quickly without just trying to look a little deeper.”

“We need to be a little more human, you know?” he says.

And if it takes a couple amoral critters to teach us to be more human, well, what’s so bad about that?


The Bad Guys is in theaters now.

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