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The Bad Guys Review: So Good It's Criminal

For all the talk amongst critics that the studio's films have ruined cinema, there's one Marvel film that has inspired studios to take bolder risks: 2018's "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse." A critical darling that web-slinged its way to the Best Animated Feature Oscar, the origin story of Miles Morales felt like a breath of fresh air in a landscape of CGI animation that often feels increasingly lifeless as it strives for absolute photorealism. Hollywood's biggest animation houses had become so preoccupied with making their fantastical characters feel lifelike that they'd forgotten this was a medium with few restrictions — why opt for lifelike when you could make a comic book come to life?

Four years later, the effects the film has had on the industry are only just taking effect. Pixar recently incorporated the visual stylings of hand-drawn anime (such as character facial expressions getting pushed to their absolute emotional extremes) for the charming "Turning Red" and delivered their best film in years. Now it's DreamWorks' turn to shake up their standard approach to CGI animation with "The Bad Guys," a delightful crime comedy whose visual style is also directly inspired by comic books, its character designs created to look like illustrations who have just leapt off the page.

Like nothing DreamWorks has done before

First-time director Pierre Perifel has spoken in depth about how happy he was when "Spider-Verse" shook up the status quo of CGI animation and he cites it as a key influence on his style — although the comic books he's pulling from to bring to life are the French and Belgian ones he grew up with (everything from Tintin to Asterix), not superhero adventures. It's part of the reason "The Bad Guys" never feels like a rival studio's attempt to imitate a groundbreaking choice that paid off for someone else; its visuals feel every bit as fresh and innovative as the film it's taking the lead from.

Adapted from Aaron Blabey's series of children's books, the film is self-described by the director as "Tarantino for kids," and opens with a "Pulp Fiction" homage to prove it. We're introduced to Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) the ringleader of the titular crime gang, who have terrorized Los Angeles by pulling off a string of successful bank heists — if it's still screening in a theater near you, this would indeed make a great double bill with Michael Bay's "Ambulance." Wolf and his associates Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina) are in the midst of plotting their biggest heist yet, stealing the Golden Dolphin award given to the person named the city's most model citizen. After news articles stating that they've lost their edge, seizing the award during the ceremony would prove they're still at the top of their game.

But the mission doesn't go as planned, and in a desperate bid to avoid jail time, Wolf agrees to a plan put forward by the award's recipient, Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade): they will learn how to become good. Although this story has all the twists and turns you'd expect from a child-friendly riff on the "Ocean's" movies, its obvious, kid-friendly moral about becoming a responsible person is always in clear sight. But even this feels slightly anarchic when placed next to your typical Disney moral, instructing kids of the all important message of not trusting anybody who presents themselves as holier-than-thou, because basic kindness isn't something to be weaponized. The way it highlights which characters are actually a force for good despite their appearances might be the ultimate takedown of Paddington Bear's "if you're kind and polite, the world will be right" worldview.

A heist homage that doesn't rob all of its ideas

The film does, however, suffer from the same problem that has plagued DreamWorks films since the studio made its debut with "Antz" in 1998. Whereas a studio like Pixar tailors their screenplays so audiences of all ages can enjoy the humor, DreamWorks movies often fall back on the lazy technique of balancing lowbrow gags for the kids with random pop culture references the parents dragged along with them can enjoy. Despite opening with a "Pulp Fiction" homage and wearing its heist movie influences on its sleeve, this isn't as much of a problem here as usual; but every now and again, a reference to (for example) George Clooney will come up and feel entirely awkward in its placement in a child-friendly adventure. It's particularly distracting because this could easily be enjoyed by audiences of all ages without having to resort to cheap throwaway gags to satisfy any adults in the audience.

But this is a minor distraction in what is otherwise the studio's best effort since its first "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel in 2014. This in itself is a surprise, considering that the films and directors it's paying homage to (from Tarantino and Soderbergh to Guy Ritchie) have been imitated so much that even the parodies of their films are frequently obvious and insufferable. It's hard not to groan a little at the initial "Pulp Fiction" homage, and the fact the character names feel designed to recall those of the ill-fated bank robbers in "Reservoir Dogs." It is no small feat that the film manages to overcome these significant limitations — in very few moments was I actually thinking about the live-action films which inspired it, or the countless terrible films that have tried to pay tribute to them across the last 30 years.

Could this all be down to the vibrant animation style? Many of the crime movie inspirations are noted for their mix of gritty violence and dark comedy, whereas "The Bad Guys" subverts genre expectations only in terms of sheer playfulness. If you showed this to a lover of those '90s and early noughts heist movies, they likely wouldn't dismiss it out of hand; it never feels like a parody so much as it feels like an attempt to do something new with a type of crime story that's grown increasingly stale. It's not just the animation style that feels fresh here.

"The Bad Guys" is much more than just a new generation's introduction to the heist movie. Pierre Perifel's directorial debut signals the arrival of a talented new voice in animation, who has helped create something that truly stands apart from the rest of DreamWorks' output. I can't wait to see what he does next.