MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: Not Rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Bad Guys begins with a four-minute animated continuous tracking shot where a snake and wolf talk trash, scare a diner full of patrons, and promptly start a bank robbery across the street. It is a fantastic nod to Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, and Ocean’s Eleven while being silly, fun, and a delight for small children. It’s only 2022, but so far this is, I think, the best animated film of the decade.
“The Bad Guys” are a motley crew of anthropomorphic criminals who, in classic “bad but not that bad” tradition, only commit thief, albeit on a huge scale. There’s Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), the master of disguise with the heart of a child. Next is Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), the crazy master of destruction with a short, Latino fuse. The smallest is Miss Tarantula (Awkwafina), the snarky tech wizard whose eight legs come in handy on the keyboard. Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) is the most senior member and the safe cracker, also the most cynical and sarcastic. Last but certainly not least is Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), the brains of the operation.
At the start of our story, they are planning their biggest heist yet, stealing the Golden McGuffin Dolphin, given annually to the best “good guy” in the city. However, something goes terribly, terribly right at the award ceremony. Attempting to steal from a helpless old lady, Mr. Wolf ends up saving her from falling down a flight of stairs. “Thank you,” she smiles and pats him on the head. “You’re a good boy.” A tingle of immense joy overtakes him, followed by an uncontrollable physiological response in his tail.
After being caught, Mr. Wolf convinces Governor Foxington (Zazie Beetz) and billionaire philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) that they can mend their ways. Marmalade takes up the Pygamlion-esque challenge and soon they are on their way to being model citizens…or maybe not.
The animation in Bad Guys is the best designed since 2018’s Oscar winning Into the Spider-Verse, a fantastic blending of traditional and computer-generated drawings that look and feel like a high caliber comic book. French director Pierre Perifel, who cut his teeth on Kung Fu Panda 2 and Rise of the Guardians, beautifully mimics action cinematography, including long tracking shots, quick edits, fluid movement, and jump zooms. There are moments where it is easy to forget the movie is a cartoon and not real. Perifel also has clearly done his homework with frequent allusions to both classic and modern heist films; Steve McQueen and Vin Diesel would be impressed.
Starting in the early 2010s, I noticed that film and television shows began playing with a basic philosophical question: what does it mean to be “good?” The piece that probably most famously dealt with this dilemma, without ultimately solving it, was NBC’s The Good Place, which contained actual lessons on Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Kant. St. Paul tells us that all men “have the law written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15) and desire goodness. But without God, how do we recognize a truly good act?
Marmalade, who is held up by this society as second only to Mother Teresa in virtue, gives a typical utilitarian answer. Being good makes one feel good, so that is good. As proof, he points to how happy Mr. Wolf felt after helping the lady at the gala. When Mr. Wolf rescues a kitten from a tree (which Marmalade secretly records and spreads on social media), he is met with thunderous applause. The problem with this philosophy is it’s essentially egocentric. Theoretically, if it felt good for Mr. Wolf to eat Marmalade, and Marmalade didn’t mind, that would be a morally righteous act. The Bay Guys subconsciously suspect something is off, and ultimately this theory falls flat, with Marmalade himself proving far less than righteous.
An alternative theory comes from the most unlikely source in the film: Mr. Snake. After feeling betrayed by their leader, a Wolf-less crew leaves Marmalade’s mansion and returns to their lair. Mr. Snake wants to console himself with a Push-Pop, but there is only one left, so he gives it to Mr. Shark who appears to be in an even worse state. “Snake, you did something…good,” Miss Tarantula marvels. “No!” Mr. Snake hisses. “All I did was put his needs above mine.” This is a much better definition of goodness. True love doesn’t usually give satisfaction and always requires sacrifice on our part. Thus, the Paschal Mystery is the ultimate act of love, and Christ commands the same of us.
The Bad Guys, despite is antagonistic title, is also remarkable in its lack of crude content typical of not just contemporary animation but Dreamworks in particular. There is plenty of stylized action but virtually no violence. There are a few moments of scatological humor but it is mostly situational. Best of all, there was not a single curse word or violation of the second commandment. This is likely due to screenwriter Etan Cohen’s Jewish faith, which also explains Adam Sandler’s similar animated content. I wish more Christian filmmakers would take a similar approach.
The Bad Guys is a wonderful piece of cinematic art: funny, clever, exciting, even profound, and certainly accessible to multiple audiences. At a time when parents are justly suspect of children’s entertainment, Mr. Wolf and his compatriots prove that the spirit of Walt Disney is still alive and well, though you might have to go far to find it. However, that is the way the life has always been. God came into to the world “not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Snakes and wolves might even get into the Kingdom before mice and ducks.
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