Two major signatures of DreamWorks Animation productions are frenetic action sequences and “adult” pop-culture references. Not all their movies heavily feature both, though many do — this is a studio that turned The Boss Baby, a fanciful children’s picture book about sibling rivalry, into a yammering, scattered comedy with Glengarry Glen Ross references and, in its recent sequel, an explosives-laden, highly destructive vehicle chase.
The new DreamWorks cartoon The Bad Guys is also based on a series of children’s books, and it seems to follow a similarly noisy pattern: It has an opening scene derived from Pulp Fiction or something out of Steven Soderbergh, leading straight into, yes, a raucous car chase. And of course, Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell) gets the audience up to speed by addressing them directly: What would DreamWorks movies be without narrated exposition in the first 10 minutes?
And yet since this is a heist movie, director Pierre Perifel knows it’s the details that matter. That opening scene, where Mr. Wolf and his best friend Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) chat in a diner about Mr. Snake’s hatred of birthdays and why guinea pigs taste so good, doesn’t reference Pulp Fiction by whipping out “Misirlou” on the soundtrack or mentioning the Royale with Cheese. Instead, the scene takes its time, letting the characters banter before revealing, in a single animated “take,” that the diner staff’s and patrons have all been cowering off-screen as the fearsome bad guys finish eating. The virtual camera then follows Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake across the street, where they knock over a bank.
The freneticism of the ensuing car chase is leavened by the intentionally choppy, mix-and-match animation style. The characters’ designs look vaguely three-dimensional, but with simpler, flatter eyes; a more paint-like texture for skin and fur; and comic book-esque graphic accents on their more extreme motions. They look drawn, rather than expensively rendered.
As with the more grown-up heist movies that precede it, the style goes a long way toward enlivening a story that may seem familiar to cartoon fans young and old. Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake are part of a notorious criminal gang — also including Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), and Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) — that eventually attempts to go straight. In other words, these are bad guys who are unexpectedly given the opportunity to improve themselves (like in Despicable Me) and break out of the villainous role that society assigned them (like in Wreck-It Ralph) based on the harmful stereotypes of their animal characteristics (like in Zootopia). This isn’t even the first time DreamWorks has gone to this well; its movie Megamind features a supervillain discovering his inner goodness.
Simply removing The Bad Guys from a superhero/supervillain context, however, helps distinguish it from its many predecessors. Perifel really does seem interested in making a kid-friendly heist/caper picture, with all the cons and twists that entails. Mr. Wolf experiences doubt over whether he should continue to pursue a life of crime, but when he initially convinces Governor Foxington (Zazie Beetz) to release his captured gang into the custody of known philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) to be reformed, he has future heisting possibilities in mind. Other characters have secret agendas of their own.
These reversals and double-crosses are all set in a bizarre hybrid environment where humans and some animals interact on equal social footing. (There are still smaller animals, like guinea pigs and kittens, who don’t speak or walk upright.) This not fully realized world, where side characters scarcely seem to exist outside the background of various capers, lends The Bad Guys an unpredictable whimsicality as it adapts heist roles for cartoon animals. Some of the innovations are clever (Mr. Snake sheds his skin to switch outfits), and some are amusingly absurd (Mr. Shark, the largest and least discreet of the group, is the designated master of disguise).
The Bad Guys’ imitation of grown-up movies isn’t always pitch-perfect. The attempts at sly banter between Mr. Wolf and Governor Foxington are just OK — more theoretically cute than conversationally sharp. It goes down easy, though, with the playful insinuation of Rockwell’s distinctive vocal tones. (His dexterous real-life dance moves survive the transition to animation, too.) Maron also does fine work as the gruff, misanthropic Mr. Snake.
It’s all pretty lightweight stuff, and after recent mainstream triumphs like Turning Red and Encanto from two different arms of Disney, The Bad Guys may well shore up DreamWorks’ status as the B-squad of contemporary American animation, where spectacle is the default and emotional growth is a little pat. But the better DreamWorks cartoons come alive when they’re liberated from Disney formulas, rather than chasing after or self-consciously spoofing them. Even when The Bad Guys resembles other movies, it’s stealing from them gracefully, with its own sensibility and energy.