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Athena Scalzi

Was “The Bad Guys” Good?

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There were a lot of good things about The Bad Guys, and I enjoyed watching it, so what is it about this movie that made it mediocre?

When I saw the trailer for The Bad Guys, I was thrilled that a movie with such a unique look was coming to theaters. Ever since 3-D animated movies became the industry standard, and hand drawn animation went out the window, so few movies have broken the mold. A couple that come to mind are Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Klaus, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Of course, I’m only focusing specifically on animated movies (largely aimed at children) of the past decade. And yes, The Bad Guys is still CG animation. But the look of it is so different from movies like Frozen, and it’s refreshing.

The animation wasn’t the only thing that made me want to go and see it. Based on the trailer, I could tell it was going to be charmingly goofy, or at least goofily charming. And I was right! The Bad Guys has the perfect blend of silly heist tactics, over-the-top expressions, and perfect punchlines. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud at least a couple times, anyway.

Each character was likeable in their own ways, and their relationships with each other seemed genuine. Their dynamics were fun, but also heart-warming, and each character felt three dimensional. And you can’t go wrong when Awkwafina, Richard Ayoade, Craig Robinson, and Sam Rockwell star alongside each other.

With all these positive qualities, why did it still fall short for me? Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was a good movie. But I was expecting to love this movie, and it ended up just being fairly average.

I found that the issue for me lies in the plot. I’m going to go into detail about the plot, so from this point on you get a spoiler warning. Ready?

SPOILER WARNING!

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, The Bad Guys is about a group of criminals that pretend to turn good as part of a scheme, but end up actually wanting to become good, and become the unlikely heroes by the end. All of the criminals are predator animals, and are viewed by society as scary and dangerous. Assuming that they’ll be feared even if they are good, they decide to fit the mold of their stereotypes and just be bad, since that’s all society sees them as anyways.

Then, a prey animal takes it upon himself to teach them to be good, like him. He ends up being the villain and framing the predators for his crimes, driving people to once again fear them.

In the end, the prey animal gets thwarted and thrown in jail, subverting all expectations of the cute and cuddly prey animal that society previously held.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

A prey mastermind coming up with a devious plan to use the majority’s fear against predators? Framing predators for crimes the prey commits? The big twist of the movie being that the prey animal was behind everything, and then gets thrown in jail after being defeated by the predators?

Knock knock. Who’s there? It’s Zootopia.

The Bad Guys was wildly predictable, mostly because it was following the exact same path as Zootopia almost from the get-go. It seemed to hit all the same points as Zootopia, but in a worse way.

While we’re comparing it to Zootopia, let’s talk about the human side of things. Why are there humans in The Bad Guys universe? More importantly, why are the only animals we see in the entire film the main characters and the villain?

Actually, let me correct that, why are the main characters the only anthropomorphized animals? The villain is literally an anthropomorphized guinea pig that uses non-anthropomorphized guinea pigs as a weapon, and there’s also a regular cat stuck in a tree. AND Shark and Piranha can just live on land with no accommodations, while the Zootopia world is clearly structured to accommodate all different types of animals.

It’s just all very odd to me. It seems rather half baked.

Overall, I liked it and I’d watch it again, but it’s less than I had hoped for.

Have you seen The Bad Guys? Did you like it? Do you feel that it copied Zootopia in some aspects? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Categories
Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 7: “Willow” by Joan Armatrading

This is the oldest song in my Personal History of Music, dating from Armatrading’s 1977 album Show Some Emotion, but that’s not when I encountered it. I encountered it nearly 20 years later, when it popped up on the soundtrack of the 1995 film Boys on the Side, which starred Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker. The movie was perfectly fine (see this trailer, which features “Dreams” by The Cranberries, as every movie trailer in the mid-90s was by law required to), but the soundtrack was where the action was. It has some excellent cuts in it, mostly covers, like Bonnie Raitt’s “You Got It,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Ol’ 55,” and, a personal favorite, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders doing a take on “Every Day is Like Sunday.”

It was “Willow,” an Armatrading original, that stood out, however. I had been vaguely aware of the existence of Joan Armatrading for a number of years, mostly from seeing her talked about and appreciated in guitarist circles and in singer/songwriter circles (there was some overlap there) but actual music was never something I sought out for myself. It took this soundtrack compilation, and this particular song, to make me aware what I had been missing.

What was it about “Willow” that opened my eyes? Well, it’s just beautiful, as gorgeous and plaintive a song about being willing to share love with someone who may not have been aware of how much they mean to you as has been written. It’s open but not insistent, offering but tentative, ready to be that person to someone, but it has to be that someone’s choice. As a songwriter, Armatrading gets gets the offer right; as a musician, she strengthens the argument; as a singer, she brings it home. The song is gentle but strong, like the willow it uses as a metaphor. Rarely is the intent of a song and its execution so perfectly matched.

My discovery of “Willow,” and also of Armatrading, speaks to the value of intentional curation of music, a thing that, if not becoming lost outright, is at least minimized in the age of streaming algorithms. Streaming services can very accurately offer up music along the lines of the stuff you know you already like; they’re not so good at the things you don’t know that you could like, if only you heard them at all. In 1995, there wasn’t much in my personal history of music that suggested I would find “Willow” essential to my life; I stumbled on it because someone (possibly Mitchell Leib, the music supervisor for Boys on the Side) intentionally put it where I could find it.

I’m glad they did. It’s a reminder to me, especially now, to keep an ear open in places I might not think to. Who knows what music I’m missing today, that I will love for the rest of my life.

— JS

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Samit Basu

We all want to be heroes, but how realistic is an individual saving the world? Author Samit Basu explores this idea in his newest book, The City Inside, making his characters focus on what they can save in their own worlds.

SAMIT BASU:

My Big Idea, initially, was to write a near-future story set in my city. Largely to channel into text, and some sort of clarity, the whole haze of anger-anxiety-amusement-affection I’d been seeing spike both within and around me over the last decade. 

The whole world’s been a mess, but even before the pandemic the accelerated rate of both physical and technological change and social and political chaos in India had been overwhelming, and I’d needed a way to process it, and I’d thought that one way to do that would be mapping out the first half of this century for my region, using current and speculative non-fiction, the news both real and propaganda, and whatever I’ve learned from being an SF/fantasy writer in multiple media for two decades now. 

I knew I’d focus on people at or above my own privilege level, who would probably be alive in the future, and safe if they looked away from anything dangerous, perhaps even happy and successful if they conformed enough, while other people escaped or submitted or disappeared.  I knew I’d focus on people significantly younger than myself, the children and teenagers of now, who were never sold the dream that India was some kind of future superpower that would very significant in a vaguely Star-Treky progressive global order. 

My protagonists’ generation would grow up in a country that from the outside was somewhere between cyberpunk and dystopia, often both under a layer of exotic, lush visuals. And in Delhi, a city that’s been a serial killer of ancient empires, and in the present is already harsh, extreme-unequal, polarised, totalitarian, digital-distracted, over-surveilled, oligarch-infested, water-short, violent, overheated, megapolluted, propaganda-saturated and often very beautiful. And full of the most dazzling people you’ll ever meet, nearly all of whom have an escape-Delhi plan whether they’ll ever use it or not.

When I started the book that eventually became The City Inside my plan was to write a novel in three sections, each a decade apart from the next, tracking my protagonists as they escaped or defeated the multiple-choice apocalypses approaching their world – climate change, genocidal tyrants, social and political conflict from state-sponsored religious extremism, mass unemployment, mass migration, technological threats beginning with mass surveillance and cyberwarfare, and of course lingering/evolving pandemics, and then you add new invented tech, like several Black Mirror episodes happening simultaneously, but in India for escalated chaos settings. And it wasn’t research-induced depression (alone) that made me realise this wasn’t a Big Idea, though I think it was the beginning of one.

SF, fantasy, and several of their neighbours under the speculative umbrella are my favourite place in literature, and not because I grew up with them: I had very limited access to SFF in my youth. They’re what I love most because they can do anything any other branch of storytelling can, but with more wonder and imagination, range and scale, feeling and structure. SFF at its best achieves truth, meaning and insight into our times and selves, sometimes with metaphor and abstraction and distance, in a way other forms struggle to. And most of my favourite works in SFF are not only great at character and idea, but also incredible architecture, clockwork, and ambition.

These are the frameworks I try hardest to write better in, and hopefully improve at as the years pass, and one of these is clarity in worldbuilding: a sense of order and understanding and precision in the invented universe, all the better to take speculative leaps from. But somehow they didn’t feel right for this story. Not if I was trying to engage harder, immerse more, in a real place and a near-future time where everything was confusing, and no one could be trusted. So the Big Idea really became trying to make this novel more real, more immersed, more present even if that meant sacrificing a lot of the things I enjoy writing most, and feel like I know how to do.

I tried setting a few writing rules to help this: I’d work with characters based entirely on chimaeras of people I knew, doing future versions of their actual jobs, having experiences I’d heard of third-hand at least. I’d work only in locations I knew well. And perhaps most crucially, I threw away the entire future history of the next South Asian half-century for being too tech-based and logic-based for the region, shifted my action setpieces to the periphery, threw away two of my three section outlines and limited the whole thing to a decade into the future. I decided to use, for worldbuilding, enhancements of tech that already existed, had been invented or prototyped, even if it was not available to buy or mass-produced and distributed yet, and then focus mainly on the ways this definitely-happening tech would be used in work-fields, urban environments and social situations I knew.

I know it’s not SF’s job to predict the future, but the more immersed I got into this future world the harder it became to pretend there was any action setpiece, plot device, or magic tech-led solution to any of its problems, that there was a single villain-set whose removal would fix things, or even that my protagonists could revolutionise or transform or save the world or the country – or even learn if how it could be saved without destroying or corrupting themselves utterly.

And in this part of the world we’ve seen only too often that tech is used to exclude, oppress, control and distract as much as it’s used to evolve or protect. I could of course wholly invent a single catastrophic crisis and have them solve it, but it felt like an escape. And I love the escape that a lot of my favourite SF and fantasy give me but having decided to dive further into immersion it was clear that only multi-generational, multi-demographic, multi-directional social change, political will, cultural evolution and economic transformation could slow down if not reverse my region’s slide into utter chaos. There is no hero for us, and so there couldn’t be any in the book.

So it made more sense to ask: if my protagonists couldn’t save the world, could each of them find out what they could save instead? Could they find out who they needed to be in a world that was trying to gaslight, manipulate and measure them? To find their own resistances and revolutions, no matter how small, and through those to movements and communities larger then themselves?

It was the most difficult writing/rewriting experience I’ve ever had, not least because worldbuilding off news is a horrible idea when terrible headlines keep appearing years ahead of schedule. Maybe there’s a certain resonance to stepping completely outside the zone of things you feel like you know how to write when writing about a post-logic, choose-your-own-reality, sci-fi-intersecting, online-led-cultural-singularity world? I don’t know, but this was the Big Idea and the direction I chose. 


The City InsideAmazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow Samit on Twitter and Instagram.

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