It’s a problem that has plagued countless kids’ movies — and more than a few grownup ones — over the course of film history: The villain is conceived and performed with such lip-smacking relish that the nominal hero seems a simpering drag to be around by comparison. Conscious of that perennial imbalance, “The Bad Guys” takes a simple solution and multiplies it, making a sympathetic protagonist of not just one supposedly dastardly antagonist, but several. Taking five anthropomorphised animals generally portrayed as violent terrors in the cartoon world — led by a big bad wolf, no less — and centering them as a chummy, lovable criminal collective, this bouncy debut feature from French animator Pierre Perifel gets a lot of value out of that neat high concept. As it steers them to the right side of the law, however, it still can’t convince us that good guys have more fun.
If there’s a downside to this strategy, it’s that an ensemble of villains, while fun to hang out with, isn’t all that easy to care about — cheery and diverting as “The Bad Guys” is, it has all the emotional weight of a few crisp, stolen Benjamins. But if it’s no classic in the making, Perifel’s jaunty escapade is still the most likable new offering in some time from the DreamWorks Animation stable, sure to strike gold with families who have exhausted the repeat viewing possibilities of “Sing 2” when it opens Stateside on April 22. (It’s already rolling out internationally.) Franchise potential, meanwhile, is obvious: The film is adapted from a graphic novel series, by Australian author Aaron Blabey, that has already run to 15 issues.
Though Blabey’s witty, sketchy illustration style has been given a sleeker makeover in its digitally animated transfer to the big screen, “The Bad Guys” nonetheless benefits from a spikier, more overtly cartoonish aesthetic than many of its more smoothly contoured DreamWorks brethren. Lively character design does as much work as the writing in warming us to a core crew of critters who — dashing silver-pelted ringleader Mr. Wolf aside — get somewhat short shrift in a busy, breakneck screenplay by Etan Cohen (returning to animation 14 years after “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”).
The key players are mostly introduced over the course of a frantic introductory car chase, as Wolf (slickly voiced by Sam Rockwell, though repeatedly likened to George Clooney) and his accomplices make a clean getaway from a successful Los Angeles bank heist. Together with cranky safe-cracker Snake (Marc Maron), snarky tech whiz Tarantula (Awkwafina), goofy, disguise-inclined Shark (Craig Robinson) and hot-headed Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Wolf has pulled off enough such robberies to make him the number-one target of canny fox governor Diane (Zazie Beetz) and eternally foiled human police chief Luggins (Alex Borstein).
The thieves’ luck finally runs out, however, during a plot to steal a prize trinket at a swanky charity gala. Caught red-handed, they face jail time until wealthy guinea-pig philanthropist Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade) proposes a more experimental course of reform: Under his tutelage, the bad guys must learn to use their sly skills for good. And that’s merely the opening gambit of a happily chaotic, highly involved narrative that proceeds to race through assorted twists both predictable — to anyone familiar with the general implications of posh English accents in children’s adventures, at least — and pleasingly left-field.
Very small fry might not follow each and every one of the story’s various turns and reversals, though it hardly matters. On a scene-to-scene basis, there’s so much going on — further car chases, adorable kitten rescue missions, a zombie apocalypse of fluorescent-eyed Guinea Pigs of the Damned — that it’s easy enough to enjoy the small picture, separate from the big one. Cohen’s writing isn’t quite as nifty or quippy as it could be (“Let’s make like a wolf and get the pack out of here,” a character says, in a limp attempt to engage accompanying adult viewers), but the sight gags are sharper, while a running gag on the debilitating effects of piranha flatulence (who knew?) should slay every time with the little ones.
For anyone attentive to such details, meanwhile, the chief incidental pleasures of “The Bad Guys” are craft-based, from its disciplined, suitably Californian palette of burnt oranges and canine tans, to the brassy exuberance of Daniel Pemberton’s working-overtime score, full of sonic callbacks to ’70s heist-movie funk. There’s even a killer original musical number, performed with full-throated swagger by “In the Heights” star Ramos, in which the bad guys pledge, at least for the moment, that they’re “gonna be good tonight.” For the sake of any future outings with these morally flexible furballs, one hopes such promises are merely temporary.