Every child knows the thrill of vicariously experiencing a movie they are 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 a gory horror movie, a pop smash that’s the soundtrack to a steamy romantic thriller, or a meme of a crazy clown shuffling down New York stairs – irresistible invitations to illegal, R-rated underworlds.
For Australian bestselling 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 gang of animals who look like they’d be at home in an early Quentin Tarantino movie.
“When kids are too young to see certain movies, they ask, ‘Can I see that?’ and you have to go, ‘No, it’s too scary, or it’s too gross, or it’s too whatever.’ I really believe a lot of [the books’ success] is taking that and then putting it in a space where kids can actually go, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got my hands on this — I can’t believe it,'” says Blabey, whose own children, ages 6 and 8 , were the test audiences for the original book.
“That’s about what the first Bad Guys book did. That cover with the four guys in the black suits, it was very Reservoir Dogs-esque, and it looked like something that [a kid’s] older brother could look, but not at them. And suddenly they realized it wasn’t just for them, it was thrown straight at them.”
With The Bad Guys on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks and more than 16 million copies in print since its debut in 2016, kids can safely say they’ve responded enthusiastically.
This week, fans of the series can experience it on the big screen in DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys, an animated feature film adaptation that features plenty of crime, bickering and wacky caricatures.
It’s a comedy of redemption that ends up somewhere between Guy Ritchie, wiseguy noir, and The Suicide Squad — you know, for kids.
Sam Rockwell voices the slick criminal mastermind Mr Wolf and Marc Maron plays the morally contradictory safe-cracker Mr Snake, while other gang favorites come to life through the vocal styles of Anthony Ramos (Mr Piranha), Craig Robinson (Mr Shark) and comedic eternal Awkwafina (Mrs Tarantula).
The voice cast also includes YouTube superstar Lily Singh, Atlanta-based Zazie Beetz, and The Souvenir’s great Richard Ayoade, who nearly steals the film as a blown-up guinea pig Professor Marmalade.
“I’m really happy with it. I love what they’ve done,” said Blabey, who served as the film’s executive producer and provided feedback during the script’s development stages.
“They’ve made a great, glorious 3D version of the soul of what I’ve come up with, and that’s the most you can hope for, I guess, as an author.”
The fast-paced and frenetic 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 style that resembles a storyboard layout for a movie.
In another life, Blabey was an accomplished television actor—winning an AFI award for his starring role in the 1994 ABC series The Damnation of Harvey McHugh—until a sudden career switch sent him into the trenches of copywriting as a successful advertising executive.
As it turned out, this strangely split path gave him a unique set of skills for the books: He understood performance and visual storytelling, and he could write punchy, punchy dialogue that grabbed kids’ attention and made them laugh.
The Bad Guys is the kind of series that is a gift to movie studios: it’s inherently cinematic, has a built-in fan base, and has maintained its popularity, even having 14 episodes.
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 feature film director Pierre Perifel, a French-born veteran DreamWorks animator, has a certain sense of go-anywhere, Looney Tunes-style visual chaos, while the script, by Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder screenwriter Etan Cohen, balances out the madness with funny, witty dialogue.
For Blabey, not talking to his audience is an essential part of the books, and he was careful to highlight every hint of it in the film.
“I was always looking for things that were too childish or too condescending for children,” he says.
“These are the kind of kids movies that I really struggle with because [they] tend to have no edge and not really be funny. The comedy comes from having that edge.”
He should know: Some of his influences aren’t what many parents would consider “kid-friendly.”
“There’s something about taking a little Reservoir Dogs, a little Mad Max, a little bit of whatever, and shaking it all up — that was the game for me, to see how far it goes,” he says.
“I have a villain in episode 14 who has chainsaw hands. And I have these conversations with myself all the time, ‘Have I gone crazy?'”
“I’ve got a little formula on my wall that sounds ridiculous, but it really works: it’s just ‘smart, stupid, funny-scary’. I just have to find [the] balance between those elements in every episode,” he says.
In the age of never-ending digital content, it’s no easy task to win over an attentive kid audience, yet Blabey’s books have somehow broken the ubiquity of tiny glowing screens.
“A few years ago, when books were ‘dead’, I thought I should look for a new job, 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 somehow still very much alive,” he recalls.
Blabey’s success – he has four projects lined up in different studios, including a film adaptation of his picture book Thelma the Unicorn on Netflix – keeps the author on his toes.
“Every time I let go of one now, I kind of panic and think, is this the one where they all walk away and say ‘No, this is boring now’?”
But The Bad Guys shows no signs of losing weight as Blabey works on his planned 20-episode arc, with cliffhangers that will keep his young audience hungry for more.
He traces the books’ relatively unorthodox serial format to his obsession with movies and—perhaps surprisingly—his love for David Lynch’s surreal television melodrama, Twin Peaks.
“There have been a number of influences that would make most people think, ‘Really? How was that part of this?’ But I try to be very free and open, because ideas can come from anywhere,” explains Blabey.
“There are no new ideas, but there is always a new context. And if you can take two things that have never been put together so well, you can come up with something really interesting,” he says.
“That’s a long way to describe why kids might like it, but who knows? There’s fart jokes in it. That could be the answer too.”
The Bad Guys hits theaters on March 31.