For creator and writer Aaron Blabey, the DreamWorks Animation film, like his award-winning book series, shows how chaotic and complex relationships between characters highlight the humanity in all of us; now available on Digital.
On its surface, the story is about not judging a book by its cover. But dig a little deeper, and DreamWorks Animation’s The Bad Guys actually tells a tale of redemption through friendship.
“It's beautiful, really beautiful, and I think that's been absolutely part of the charm of this whole experience,” says Aaron Blabey, writer and creator of “The Bad Guys” books and executive producer of the animated film. “The relationship between Wolf and Snake is an unusually human and real relationship, certainly for the age group of books that I write, but for movies, too.”
“The Bad Guys” stories by Blabey follow a group of anthropomorphic animals who society has deemed “monstrous” or “scary” – Wolf, Snake, Piranha, Shark, and Tarantula – as they attempt to perform good deeps and change the way the world views them. Directed by Bilby’s Pierre Perifel, the film is, as Blabey puts it, “a lovely blend” of new content and material pulled directly from his books.
In the film – which released in U.S. theaters back in April and is now available on Digital – Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Snake (Marc Maron), Piranha (Anthony Ramos), Shark (Craig Robinson), and Tarantula (Awkwafina) are publicly humiliated after Los Angeles governor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), insults the gang’s recent bank heist. To get revenge, The Bad Guys plan to steal a good-deeds-recognizing “Golden Dolphin” award being presented to guinea pig philanthropist Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade) at a gala.
When The Bad Guys’ plan fails and they are caught and arrested, Marmalade suggests putting the criminals through reform training at his home. While Wolf thinks he’s tricked their way out of prison, he also discovers he has a surprising affinity for being a “good boy,” which worries his right-hand-man Snake.
“I get asked by kids about my favorite character, and it's Mr. Snake, because he struggles the most with all this,” says Blabey. “I've often thought of Snake, spiritually, as a recovering alcoholic. He keeps falling off the wagon. They keep trying to keep him on the path and he keeps falling off. It’s inherently very funny in the situations that they're in. But it is also really human.”
Blabey continues, “It's a complex, messy, friendship between Wolf and Snake. One of them is inherently optimistic and says, ‘We can change the way people think about us.’ And the other one has just been beaten his whole life and says, ‘No, I'm a snake. Everybody thinks that I’m a snake so I’m going to be a snake.’ There's something really beautiful about that dynamic and the tension between it and the fact that the friendship exists within it.”
While The Bad Guys is deeply rooted in the concept of redemption, Blabey’s idea for the story actually started with the pursuit of redeeming his son’s love of books.
“My youngest was bringing home books from school that he found so boring, they would make him cry,” the author says. “True story. So I decided to do something about it. At the time, he was into scary animals and cool cars. And I had been thinking about doing something about prejudices. I didn't know what though and I thought that didn't sound like much fun. And then, I don't know why, but those two things clicked together – scary animals being judged because of the way they looked. And then it suddenly opened a door for all of my favorite movies by Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh with all that iconography wrapped around it. And, in the space of a couple of hours, it was fully formed. And, in a couple of days, I wrote the first [book].”
It was also a way to redeem Blabey’s childhood memories associated with these specific animals.
“I’m obsessed with movies, and always have been since I was a little boy, and there were a number of points in my childhood where there was an image that I couldn’t shake,” he explains. “I remember, when I was four years old, I had to be led out of a cinema with my eyes closed because of the Jaws 2 poster. And on the TV show The Brady Bunch, there was an episode where a tarantula gets into the suitcase when they go to Hawaii on a holiday. And, again, when I was nine years old, I got asked by the mother of another nine-year-old to pick a video for the kid's birthday. I turned up with American Werewolf in London and scared every child in the room, myself included.”
He continues, “As a child, that stuff just preys on your mind. So, I played with the iconography, took things from scary movies and action movies, mashed it all up, then hotwired it for kids.”
Blabey had already published eight volumes, or “episodes,” of his series when work began on a film adaptation in 2018. But now, with a total of 16 out of 20 planned volumes written and the film released and enjoyed by millions, Blabey says The Bad Guys has “blown up into a space that is incredibly exciting.”
“10 years ago, I couldn't give my books away,” he notes. “They weren't popular at all. And then, all of a sudden, this thing went ‘Kaboom!’ and literally millions of children are now waiting for the next installment. I think, because the iconography looked like something for their older brother – a bit naughty and out of their age group – they must have gone, ‘Wow, I got to get my hands on this.’ Depending on the numbers, how it all pans out with the first movie, we're all very keen to do a sequel at the very least.”
The film is based loosely on Blabey’s first four books and showcases new materials as well as iconic moments from the original stories, such as The Bad Guys failing to save a cat stuck in a tree and Snake eating a horde of animals he’s supposed to be rescuing. The animation style is also a hybrid of 2D and 3D, which greatly delighted Blabey, despite being so far removed from his more simple black and white illustrations.
“I am limited, at best, as a draftsman and I think part of the charm of the books is the borderline incompetence of some of these drawings,” says Blabey. “I think that's why people like them, because there's an energy that feels really messy and scrappy. But what's happening in my head is actually what you see in the movie. Most big studio animations these days are very gloriously 3D and CG all the way through and the fact that there was that lovely blending of 2D and 3D in this animation, and a nod to the source material, was mind-melting for me. I hadn't anticipated that and I love it.”
The animation was also an effort to not only remind audiences that this story came from a graphic novel, but also to show these characters with much more fluidly human movements, not just with action scenes, but also with sequences where the characters are just sitting at a table and chatting.
“It's so easy to imagine that opening scene with Sam Rockwell and Marc Maron sitting in a diner talking to each other and it would work equally as well if it was just the two of them in real life,” says Blabey. “But right at the beginning of the animation process, the animation team was especially nervous about Snake because snakes generally, in the history of animation, have been the villain and insidious and scary. And we needed this guy to be really charming. So they worked hard on building the kind of skeleton for him so that would allow him to move in really unconventional and amusing ways that feel like a person. So he’ll sit down and it looks like he’s got a potbelly. That kind of stuff.”
Capturing more human traits in these animal characters was essential, considering the fact that they exist alongside regular humans, a deviation from Blabey’s books which feature an entirely animal-populated world.
“On a very pragmatic level, we wanted to create a point of difference with Zootopia, but also, Pierre talked about when he wanted reactions from crowds, he wanted to reduce the processing time of the audience,” Blabey shares. “If it's an old lady, you get that it's an old lady. But if it's a giraffe that is also an old lady, you have to go through a couple of steps in your mind first.”
While it was a significant change from the books, Blabey says that, in many ways, he didn't even notice it.
“Piranha and Shark, in the books, they don't have legs so they don't walk and that should have been really weird for me, to see them walk with legs in the film, but it wasn't,” he says. “I accepted it quite quickly. It’s similar in the books, as well. Shark and Piranha don't need to be in water and they make a wisecrack about it in the first book at the beginning and then it's never mentioned again. I think it's the same with this. You just accept stuff. Even the Muppets walk around with people and you don’t question it.”
Truthfully, rather than getting hung up on the logic of the world surrounding The Bad Guys, Blabey says that in both book and film, his focus was primarily on character relationships, especially between Wolf, who discovers his desire to be accepted, and Snake, who believes he never will be, which is the backbone of film.
“As executive producer, I actually wasn't too concerned with where the story went but what I was particularly concerned about was preserving character relationships,” Blabey concludes. That was my gig. I wanted to keep the interrelationships between the characters the same because I think that's what everybody loves about the books. What we ended up with was an Ocean's 11 for kids, and that was right in my wheelhouse.”