The Bad Guys author Aaron Blabey ‘thrilled’ with DreamWorks Animation’s adaptation of his hit kids books

Every kid knows the thrill of vicariously experiencing a movie they’re way too young to see, thanks to a little imagination and an easily accessible slice of cultural ephemera. It could be a rubber Halloween mask from some gory horror flick, a pop smash that soundtracks a steamy romantic thriller, or a meme of a crazed clown shimmying down a New York stairway – irresistible invitations to illicit, R-rated netherworlds.

For bestselling Australian author Aaron Blabey, that’s all part of the appeal of The Bad Guys, his phenomenally successful children’s book series that follows an anthropomorphic animal gang who look like they’d be at home in an early Quentin Tarantino movie.

Director Pierre Perifel drew on a diverse range of references for the animation style, including Japanese anime and French graphic novels.(Supplied: Universal)

“When kids are too young to see certain movies, they go, ‘Can I see that?’ and you’ve gotta go, ‘No, it’s too scary, or it’s too rude, or it’s too whatever.’ I genuinely believe a big part of [the books’ success] is taking that and then putting it in a space where kids can actually go, ‘Oh my God, I got my hands on this – I can’t believe it’,” says Blabey, whose own kids, at ages 6 and 8, were the test audience for the original book.

“That’s sort of what the first Bad Guys book did. That cover with the four guys in the black suits, it was very Reservoir Dogs-ish, and it looked like something that [a kid’s] older brother might look at, but not them. And they suddenly realized it was not only for them, but pitched directly to them.”

With The Bad Guys racking up more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and over 16 million copies in print since its debut in 2016, it’s safe to say that kids have responded with enthusiasm.

Double page spread from an illustrated book featuring a squinting brown wolf, a green piranha, a yellow snake and a gray shark.
Blabey described the series as his “love letter to cinema” to The AU Review: “It’s a culmination of everything I love within action movies.”(Supplied: Scholastic)

This week, fans of the series get to experience it on the big screen in DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys, an animated feature adaptation that delivers plenty of crime, capering and crackpot caricature.

It’s a comedy of redemption that lands somewhere between Guy Ritchie, wiseguy noir and The Suicide Squad – you know, for kids.

Sam Rockwell voices smooth criminal mastermind Mr Wolf and Marc Maron plays morally conflicted safe-cracker Mr Snake, while other gang faves come to life via the vocal stylings of Anthony Ramos (Mr Piranha), Craig Robinson (Mr Shark) and comedy perennial Awkwafina ( Ms Tarantula).

Asian-American woman with long black hair wears yellow shirt and headphones in a sound recording booth.
“The story is pretty existential, and these are characters with sincere dilemmas,” Awkwafina (pictured) said in press notes.(Supplied: Universal)

The voice cast also includes YouTube superstar Lily Singh, Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, and The Souvenir’s wonderful Richard Ayoade, who all but steals the movie as puffed-up guinea pig Professor Marmalade.

“I’m thrilled with it. I love what they’ve done,” says Blabey, who served as the film’s executive producer and provided feedback during the script development stages.

“They’ve done a great big, glorious 3D version of the soul of what I came up with, which is the most you can hope for, I think, as an author.”

The fast and frantic film feels like the perfect fit for a book series so indebted to cinema; a series whose stories – which Blabey also illustrates – unfold in a dynamic, comic book panel style not unlike a storyboard layout for a movie.

In another life, Blabey was an accomplished television actor – he won an AFI award for his lead role in the 1994 ABC series The Damnation of Harvey McHugh – until a sudden career switch landed him in the copywriting trenches as a successful ad man.

Middle-aged white man with short gray hair, beard and glasses wears black suit and stands on red carpet in front of movie poster
In the opening diner scene, Blabey’s name can be seen printed in a newspaper.(Supplied: Universal)

It turns out this strangely bifurcated path furnished him with a unique set of skills for the books: he understood performance and visual storytelling, and he could write pithy, punchy dialogue that captured kids’ attention and made them laugh.

The Bad Guys is the kind of series that’s a gift to movie studios: it’s inherently cinematic, has an in-built fanbase, and has maintained its popularity, even 14 episodes in.

Everyone wanted a piece of it, Blabey says, but it was DreamWorks Animation – the studio behind Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda – that felt like the material’s natural home.

First-time feature director Pierre Perifel, a French-born veteran DreamWorks animator, has a sure sense of anything-goes, Looney Tunes-style visual mayhem, while the script, by Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder screenwriter Etan Cohen, balances the wackiness with droll wisecracking dialogue.

Black and orange book cover of children's book The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey featuring a cartoon spider, wolf, shark and piranha
Perifel was first inspired by the book’s cover: “There was a genius simplicity in how it encapsulated a big idea while making it wickedly fun.”(Supplied: Scholastic)

For Blabey, not talking down to his audience is an essential element of the books, and he was careful to flag any hint of it in the movie.

“I was always on the lookout for stuff that felt too kiddie or too condescending to kids,” he says.

“They’re the kind of kids’ movies that I really struggle with, because [they] tend to not have any edge and not be genuinely funny. The comedy comes from having that edge.”

He should know: some of his influences are not what many parents would consider ‘kid friendly’.

“There’s something about taking a bit of Reservoir Dogs, a bit of Mad Max, a bit of whatever, and stirring it all up – that’s been the game for me, to see how far it goes,” he says.

“I’ve got a villain in Episode 14 who has chainsaw hands. And I constantly have these conversations with myself: ‘Have I lost my mind?'”

“I have a little formula on my wall, which sounds ridiculous, but it really works: it’s just ‘smart-dumb, funny-scary.’ I just have to find [the] balance between those elements in each episode,” he says.

Animated green and orange piranha wears white shirt and black pants and wields a microphone on a pink-lit stage.
“Piranha is the most naïve character in this family. He’s much more childish and charming. But he’s still the muscle of the gang,” Perifel said.(Supplied: Universal)

Capturing an attention-challenged kids audience in the age of infinite digital content is no easy task, yet Blabey’s books have somehow cut through the ubiquity of little glowing screens.

“A few years ago, when books were ‘dead’, I was thinking I need to get into a new line of work, and [now] it’s almost comical when I look at how many books are sold compared to the ebook version. It’s hilarious. The book is still gigantically alive somehow,” he reflects.

If anything, Blabey’s success – he has four projects lined up at various studios, including a movie adaptation of his picture book Thelma the Unicorn at Netflix – keeps the author on his toes.

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