I’ve been trying to think what was the last popcorn movie — let alone the last popcorn "family" movie — that was as much sheer fun as Spy Kids. (For the record, my picks are (a) X-Men and (b) Chicken Run, maybe even Toy Story 2.) In any case, it’s been awhile.
For some time now, kid-friendly movie fare has ranged from uninspiring to downright dismal: See Spot Run, Recess: School’s Out, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 102 Dalmatians, Dinosaur, Stuart Little, The Road to El Dorado… the list goes on and on. Nor have popular movies generally been much better.
But here at last is an entertainment that’s actually worth going to theaters to see: an "eye candy" movie that’s actually bright and colorful and fun to look at (contrast the oddly dismal-looking Grinch); a gadget-driven spy spoof that uses its fantasy license to create a high-tech world that’s more spectacular, not less, than that of James Bond (contrast the uninventive Inspector Gadget); a family film that actually has a positive, affectionate view of families and family life (contrast the contemptuous subtext of Family Man).
The press kit calls it "James Bond for kids," but this over-the-top fantasy romp might be more accurately described as a family-friendly True Lies: The Next Generation, or even a married-with-children Austin Powers — all with Willy Wonka-style wonkiness and inspired set design straight out of Dr. Seuss. Never mind that most of those touchstones have their own morally problematic issues: With zero sensuality or innuendo — not to mention a total absence of such kid-movie staples as flatulence jokes or blows to the crotch — Spy Kids not only avoids giving offense (though see note below), it’s smarter and more consistently entertaining than True Lies or Austin Powers, not to mention most of the recent Bond flicks.
Spy Kids is full of cartoony action sequences and scenes of comic menace that should present no problem to any but the youngest viewers; parents of a typical seven- or eight-year-old won’t have anything to worry about. My TV-innocent six-year-old daughter isn’t quite ready for Spy Kids — but I sure was, and a lot of other parents with slightly older children will be too. I think kids as old as 12 or 14 will enjoy the film as well; but pity the 16-year-old who’s too cool for a kid movie but not yet grown-up enough to become a kid again.
The setup: Gregorio (Antonio Banderas, dashing in Zorro mode) and Ingrid (coolly glamorous Carla Gugino) are former rival superspies who fell in love and put their opposing loyalties and their life of intrigue behind them in order to "embark on the most dangerous mission they have ever faced: raising a family."
Their two children, Carmen and Juni (refreshingly appealing Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), have heard the story of the dramatic wedding escape from espionage, but they have no idea that their own parents are the protagonists. "My parents can’t be spies!" shrieks Carmen when the secret starts to come out. "They’re not cool enough!" But one of Spy Kids’ redeeming themes is that parents can be a lot cooler than their kids suspect, and the mission of keeping a family together is as much an adventure as the life of a superspy.
Soon enough the kids find that not only are Mom and Dad spies, but they themselves have been entangled in a preposterous scheme involving an army of robotic children, a surreal Krofft-style TV kid’s show with a host named Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming, doing a cross between Pee-Wee Herman and Willy Wonka), a walnut-sized cybernetic brain containing the collective intelligence knowledge of the world, a weird assortment of captive creatures called Fooglies, and a troupe of faceless henchmen called "Thumb-Thumbs" who stump around like bodybuilders but have only giant thumbs for appendages and even heads.
There’s an inspired nuttiness to all this, a freewheeling, frenetic level of visual invention more often associated with animation (cf. the "Wallace and Gromit" shorts, or The Nightmare Before Christmas) than live action. The special effects aren’t always top drawer, but they successfully bring to life a fantasy world far more engaging and fanciful than many a more expensive spectacle.
Yet it’s the spy-family characters that gives Spy Kids heart. The parents come off well, but this is the kids’ movie, and for once kids in a family film act like recognizable children — not miniature adults, not overly cute sweetie-pies, not wisecracking sitcom smart-alecks showing up the grown-ups, but bickering, insecure, ordinary little kids. Small touches, like a two-hour submarine ride depicted in montage that makes it seem as endless as only a preadolescent child could find it, give authenticity to the film’s child point of view.
Both kids are likable and sympathetic, though older Carmen is the more competent and picks on her brother constantly, while younger Juni has more pratfalls and needs rescuing every so often. Both the teasing and the pratfalls are subject to some degree of redemption by the film’s end; I would have liked to see Juni get an apology from Carmen, but the movie’s final word is clearly family togetherness: The family that spies together, ties together, or something like that. (Another point worth noting is Spy Kids’ almost unself-conscious context of Latino culture and characters.)
Spy Kids is from director Robert Rodriguez — who’s known for crime thrillers El Mariachi and Desperado, as well as horror schlock From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty — and distributor Dimension (a Miramax division), also more commonly associated with R-rated, ultraviolent movies. Rodriguez isn’t the first director of tough content to have a successful go at more wholesome fare: A couple of years ago surrealist David Lynch (Blue Velvet) made the gently uplifting The Straight Story (rated G), and cinematic con man David Mamet (House of Games) made the sweet The Winslow Boy (also rated G).
This is a promising development. Still, Spy Kids doesn’t have the Disney publicity machine or a huge advance marketing tie-in with action figures and Happy Meals (a glaring McDonald’s product placement in the film notwithstanding) to guarantee the box-office success that might get Hollywood thinking about making more smart, fresh, creative family films like this one. To a degree, it will depend on positive parental word of mouth to give it that kind of clout. Spy Kids deserves every success.
Note [from the first release]: Although Spy Kids contains no innuendo or sensuality, some parents will want to be forewarned that the film is showing with a pre-show trailer for another movie, Doctor Doolittle 2, that does. This trailer features Eddie Murphy incredulously asking a pair of turtles if they really "haven’t had sex in 48 years" ("I’m not asking much; every ten years would be nice," grumbles the female; prompting the male response, "What am I, a machine?"). Another animal whines that it’s going to "die a virgin"; and Murphy himself rebuffs a request from his wife with a curt "Hey, you do it your damn self, woman!" How this kind of language makes it into a trailer deemed by the MPAA appropriate for "all audiences" is a mystery to me.
Special Edition notes: When director Robert Rodriguez was preparing Spy Kids for its first release, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to do all the effects he had envisioned. As a result, some scenes had to be left half-done, while others (such as a scene in which Carmen and Juni swim through a cave that’s supposed to be full of sleeping sharks) were omitted altogether.
But when Spy Kids became the surprise hit of the spring season, generating career-best box-office records for director Rodriguez and star Antonio Banderas, money suddenly became much more plentiful; and Rodriguez was able to finish the movie the way he’d wanted to. This special rerelease is in limited areas so far, but of course if business is brisk, it will go wider. (Those who don’t catch the special edition in rerelease will of course be able to see it later on VHS or DVD.)
I haven’t yet seen the new footage myself, but look for more colorful eye candy and (as with the special edition Star Wars films) more stuff going on in the background.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.