Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The movie that does not advocate the cool crime of robbery


Directed by Pierre Perifel
Written by Etan Cohen (based on the book series by Aaron Blabey)

Spoilers: mild

It surprises me to realize it, because it managed its ascent so quietly, but DreamWorks Animation really is my favorite American animation studio currently in operation, and while I've said things in the past like "if this keeps up..." and "they sure have turned themselves around!", I think I'll just explicitly commit to that position, despite the irony bomb that'll go off before the third paragraph.  This has been, of course, in larger part simply because the Janus-faced monster of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar has lately gotten so inexplicably bad, and because Laika vanished, so that all DWA even had to do here was to keep diligently making consistently good cartoons in the pop cultural background and with half the resources of their peers, and they were bound to overcome their competitors eventually.

However, this is not solely the result of absent or inept adversaries.  It's also down to DWA's uncanny ability to spin gold out of straw, so that, in between How to Train Your Dragon movies, they've spent more than a decade now positioning themselves as the undisputed masters of turning extraordinarily bad concepts into superb animated comedies, with at least eight movies since 2010 that should not work, but do work, and beautifully.  Something coalesced for DWA around 2016, where bad-concepts-turned-into-good-movies became almost their entire output, their entire corporate reason for being.  And so I honestly do understand why The Bad Guys would be the kind of challenge this studio would need to take on.  It is the worst concept.  By corollary, would it not make the best DWA movie?  That's logic.  I guess I have to respect DWA banking everything on their peculiar genius at elevating the cringiest material, but I was right to mistrust even this studio with this concept, which is, put briefly, "it's so Ocean's 11 that you'd need to hide behind 'parody' to avoid the lawsuit, but now they're talking animals and they learn a lesson about why stealing is actually wrong."

Well, it looks splendid, by which I mean the technology (maybe more aptly, the technique) is splendid; there's something here that I really want to see get worked out further.  The fact that The Bad Guys wound up reasonably successful for an animated theatrical release in 2022 means, unfortunately, that it may get worked out further with these characters and in this world.  Those characters then, are the self-styled "Bad Guys," a band of thieves led by a Wolf (Sam Rockwell) who only fails to literally be Danny Ocean not so much because he's a wolf, which is incidental, but because he wears white suits while committing crimes.  Mr. Wolf invites us to ponder the mythology of his kind and the epochs-old racial animus we've borne against the idea of the Wolf, and consider which came first, his antisocial behavior, or our judgment, and I will try very hard to just get through this plot summary cleanly, though I will point out that to the extent the mythological wolf represents anything besides actual wolves, it tends to represent rape and war (and, ahem, death), and not so much carefully-plotted movie heists.  In any case, Wolf has gathered a whole collection of quote-unquote predators not unlike himself: the flexible Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), the hacker Ms. Tarantula (Nora Lum), the master of disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and the violence-prone Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos).  We follow along as they pull off their latest job, bamboozling the irascible, also violence-prone police chief (Alex Borstein), but in the aftermath Wolf finds himself piqued by the condescending public statements of Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), a red fox, who frames these villains more as pathetic figures of contempt than true threats to the social fabric.

"Making it personal," as one is not meant to do in such matters, Wolf convinces his team to steal a civic award right out from under the governor and its recipient, do-gooder Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (David Ayoade), a guinea pig, during the award presentation itself.  This is not pulled off, in part thanks to Wolf getting distracted by seeing what it might be like to be loved and respected rather than feared or despised, but before they can be carted off to jail, Wolf turns Marmalade's conceit against him, tricking him into obtaining Foxington's grudging consent to try to rehabilitate them, as proof of how everyone has good in them waiting to be cultivated.  And obviously Wolf is tricking himself because he actually would like to be good, and on the way we'll get three or four other twists that are only slightly less obvious.

The Bad Guys, with only a little more screenplay polish, might've been able to get bymight've been able to singon the basis, solely, of how it looks.  For it is a remarkable thing, though the history of it is prosaic enough: DWA has, by necessity, found itself steadily retreating for about ten years from the photorealistic standard imposed on the animation industry by Pixar, with only the Dragons maintaining a serious stake in that style, and this has been by necessity, because they just can't afford such big computers.  The Dragons look great (with caveats), but the limits of DWA's ability to do photorealism have frequently been cruelly exposed by the march of time, and that's assuming it was ever acceptable to render sacks of leather over a bunch of clunky rigging and call them "characters."  And so they went sideways, with vastly cartoonier characters when humans were asked for (and chunks of felt when Troll dolls were asked for), and in their cash-strapped way they stumbled right into the vanguard of the industry, as everyone else also began to look for ways around or beyond mere photorealism.  Nevertheless, there is nothing quite like this before in the DWA canon; the closest is probably some individual bits in Kung Fu Panda 3, and I also believe they've been experimenting with how "painted-on" they could make their characters' eyes for a while, so that there's that thread of continuity between this and, e.g., the Trolls characters.  But otherwise this is a bit of a quantum leap, from the abstracted cartoons in, e.g., the Boss Babies, that were merely strong designs within a constrained budget, and this, which does an effortless end-run around any impulse to call it cheap, to the extent that while I know it's cheap, the word never once occurred to me.

Everything about it feels entirely deliberate, devoted to an almost immaculate aesthetic of 3-D CGI turned back in on itself towards flat animation while still maintaining the dynamism inherent to moving computer simulations, and it's even more of a thing here than it was in Spider-Verse, or whatever other recent entry into the anti-photorealist movement you'd prefer.  The closest analogue might be the Peanuts CGI film, though it looks very different, the basis of that being more along the lines of 3-D models that were literally flattened like pancakes, still retaining visible dimensionality (and because it's a Peanuts film, "dynamism" wasn't the watchword).  This is actually genuinely akin to drawings, or more like very saturated paintings, still digital, but abstract, rendered mobile but possessing dimensionality only in the sense that they're moving so fluidly, and being moved against so fluidly by the camera.  (I would, just to guess, assume the lighting was heavily manual on this film, and it has no interest in naturalism.)  It is, surely, the cartooniest cartoon ever made with this technologyWolf is the cartooniest single character ever made with this technology, covered in the suggestion of texture rather than "ten thousand hair follicles," and afforded, with those "painted-on" eyes (whole faces now being essentially "painted-on"), a level of deforming expressivity that traditional CGI can't and shouldn't do.  But I might be even more taken with the backgrounds here; they're just the most amazingly successful go at turning CGI into the painted watercolor backdrops from a mid-century cartoon, and not even an expensive mid-century cartoon, even introducing impressionistic "flaws" like elements that should be the exact same size and shape but are a little offit's so much a good replication of that aesthetic that I'm not sure I actually like it when it starts doing "cinematography," racking focus and the like.

But then, this is what makes it a hybrid moving forward into the 21st century, and not just the thing it resembles, and I am obviously far too hung up on the past for my own good.  Yet my single favorite frame even merges background and character animation: upon their failure at the awards gala, our anti-heroes are surrounded by an enormous army of police, who still have moving facial expressions but whose bodies are practically frozen there, actually receding into the backdrop and becoming part of it, suddenly given incongruously evocative lighting effects, exactly like a not-very-expensive mid-century cartoon might do, even exactly in the ways I complain about mid-century cartoons, in that there was never actually a good reason to do jarringly-overelaborated paintings of the characters when a held frame would've done perfectly fine.  My second favorite frame, anyway, was an establishing shot of Wolf walking on top of a building, just a hazy silhouette.

And all of this craft, all this novelty, all this loving homage, for what?  It's not a particularly interesting world to do background paintings of, it's just LA.  It's not particularly emotional or amusing cartooning, it's just mugging and flailing.  And the story... I'm not sure I even can completely articulate why, but the fundamental thing, the thing that makes me reject it out of hand, sounds nuts.  But here it is: this talking animal cartoon's world-building is a crock of shit.

This isn't even some weird bugbear: I watched the first Puss In Boots directly after this (which makes a discombobulating double feature: it's almost the same story handled at a preposterously higher level of maturity), and I never once thought to myself "dur, why are there talking animals in this world of humans?"  But I was thinking that constantly here.  It falls directly into a deep abyss I didn't even know existed, between "somewhat thought-through alternate world with talking animals" (your Zootopias, your Bojack Horsemen) and "pure zany talking animal comedy" (your most everything else).  Every single sapient creature in this film besides the seven principals is a human being, many of the non-sapient creatures are of the same species as one of the sapient ones, and two of the talking animals have something like actual names whilst the other five are named "Honorific, Animal."  And this all makes me crazy, for with its constant sermonizing about outsiders-becoming-what-you-define-them-as it demands that you take this distinction not only extremely seriously, but extremely literally, which would've been a hell of an ask even if the film actually provided some baseline of world-building literalism on their behalf, and if they were not entirely a collection of (bad) gag-a-minute slapstick cartoons.  Looney Tunes, you know, do not continually insist that Bugs et al live in a society.  Even in Tiny Toon Adventures, where they do live in a society, they don't feel imposed upon it as some tottery metaphor.  And obviously in both those cases you're dealing with full-tilt comedy, which this is not, though it unsuccessfully tries; it is a full-tilt comedy that's never more than thirty seconds away from reverting back to a moralizing parable pitched at the tiniest possible children.  Which is definitely what you want in a comedy, of course.  Needless to say it's what you want in your heist film.  And even if that somehow is what you, unsarcastically, do want in your heist film, you square, you would presumably still want the actual morality espoused therein to be less offensively shallow than good:bad::reward:punishment.

And on its merits?  I'll give it credit for kinda-sorta squaring the circle of "these career criminals must learn that their actions are antisocial" with "these career criminals must still provide us with traditional heist film pleasures"they wind up heisting for goodwhich isn't the least feat for a movie bent so far towards good moral hygiene that it's got its head stuffed up the corpse of the Hays Code's ass.  (Though even on that count it banks a whole lot more of its heist pleasures than one would prefer on omnipotent "hacking," which has been an albatross on the genre since computers entered the mainstream, but even in this reduced context one hopes for something more creative than "progress bars equal tension.")

But, God, the rest of it: Sam Rockwell's plagiaristic George Clooney impression decays with startling frequency into Christian Slater (not two voices I'd have linked, but apparently they're actually not that far off), and Rockwell is still one of the vanishingly few members of the cast doing a good job (the others being Zazie Beetz and Marc Maron, so at least "the three leads," though if the latter proves the most valuable VA with his croaking voice and ill-temper, he still has terrible material, particularly a film-long attempt to be "edgy" as regards his penchant for eating rodents that of course arrives pre-emasculated).  The remainder of the cast, however, get saddled with irritating shtick that in every case they make more irritating (Robinson, in particular, somehow sinks the should-be-funny conceit of a giant shark managing to fool people with transparent disguises that don't hide he's a giant shark, by playing it so loud and hammy he totally upstages the visual component).  Then again, this is all part and parcel to a comedy where a third of the jokes are slightly funny and the other two-thirds are actively, obnoxiously unfunny.  It's a kid's movie in the most pejorative sense of that phrase: the most memorable comedy stylings involve a thrice-repeated fart joke that just made me sad, not only in how much plot function it winds up having, but how the particle effects of the toxic green fog it produces are the worst animation in the movie.  Furthermore, the image below, or the functional comedic equivalent of the image below, is roughly 25% of the film:

Yet it's even disappointing, because for about a minute right at the beginning this script is just Rockwell and Maron doing, like, a Tarantino riff with jokes specific to their animal species.  It is by such a huge margin the best dialogue in the movie you have to keep wondering why so much of the rest of it is just Goddamn farts, and nervous jokes about how hard they're trying to be cool ("but aren't they still p-pretty cool?" the film stammeringly whispers).  The final act, meanwhile, is abjectly fucking insane: even to the extent any of this had any cohesion, it's obliterated completely upon contact with the sci-fi conspiracy and the Pixar-on-acid chase bullshit that dominates the climax.

Oh, and don't think I overlooked that two of the seven animals in this exclusively terrestrially-set film are fish.  I noticed.  Aesthetically, this movie needs to be studied, intensely, by anyone with an interest in the art form.  Narratively, this movie alternates between a complete failure mode of the DWA model and simply making me feel like my skull's caving in.

Score: 4/10


  1. Agreed on almost all counts. I loved looking at this one but not so much watching it. On paper, I actually kind of like "reverse breaking bad" as an arc... Will the anti-hero be seduced by a life of virtue, or resist the call and stay pure(ly evil)? But the script is so disinterested in interrogating that idea that it just shuffles through the Ocean's-style betrayal beats half-heartedly. Now that the calendar has flipped and it's safe to retrospect, I'd call this is one of the more disappointing 2022 releases.

    1. It does make me wanna watch the Oceanses again. 12 is so perfect (13 is perfect with the very major exception of Matt Damon's sex drug thing--I feel like the casual super-science trotted out in both 11 and 13 is more damaging than people usually note--but 12 is just right).

      I hope one notes the hubristic arrogance of the claim "DWA is the best!" before I've seen Puss In Boots 2. (I was startled how much I liked the first, though, and everyone's saying the second is amazing.)