The original Spy Kids was the surprise family hit of spring 2001, a rollicking, wildly inventive lark that put family life in a romantic, even heroic light. Surreal Seuss-like set design, troupes of wacky creatures with names like Fooglies and Thumb-Thumbs, and more James-Bond gizmos than Q’s whole laboratory were the setting for a surprisingly human story in which it was argued that parents are cooler than their kids suspect, that marriage is a thrilling adventure, and that keeping a family together is a mission as vital as saving the world.
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams has the imagination and energy of the earlier film, but not, alas, the heart, or the wit. The creatures are wackier than ever, the gadgets even more over-the-top. But the theme of family togetherness takes a back seat to inter-family rivalry and workplace ambition, and the slapdash story includes whole subplots — most bizarrely an ancient temple in which skeletons come to life and fight over a mystic artifact, and speech is impossible but thoughts are audible — that have no explanation or even plot relevance.
In the original Spy Kids, dashing spy parents Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Guigino) exchanged the glamorous world of espionage for the even greater adventure of raising a family. Their children Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) weren’t actually "Spy Kids" — a term that in the movie actually applied to a line of robotic child warriors designed by the only somewhat sinister Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) — but became entangled in their parents’ exotic former life when the latter were captured by Floop’s forces.
But times change, and in Spy Kids 2 the ultra-secret OSS now has a bustling junior-agent division where Razor-scooting youngsters learn such essential espionage skills as martial arts and ballroom dancing. Carmen and Juni have "Level 2" clearance, which somehow gives them enough authority to order around the president of the United States, but not enough to go on secret missions unaccompanied.
Gregorio and Ingrid, meanwhile, have come out of semi-retirement and returned to full-time spy employment. In theory, they’re still with their kids; but family is no longer the focus: Instead, we get a storyline in which Gregorio is cheated out of a big promotion and a bigger office by rival spy Donnagon (Mike Judge), while Donnagon’s spy-kid children Gary and Gertie Giggles (Matthew O’Leary and Emily Osment, kid sister of Haley Joel) underhandedly upstage Carmen and Juni.
Why would kids be useful as spies? One answer the movie offers is that there may be situations in which their smaller size may be an asset. And, when secretly drugged champagne is served at an OSS banquet and every adult agent in the room passes out after the toast, the spy kids also discover the unexpected benefits of being too young to drink.
The ensuing battle sequence pits a roomful of kid-power poster children making like Jackie Chan crossed with Inspector Gadget against a troop of oddly hatted "Magna-Men" with a most unusal exit strategy. In the pandemonium, a device with the curious name of "Transmooker" is stolen, a theft that ultimately leads Carmen and Juni — along with their rivals, the also curiously named Giggles — to a mysterious island inhabited by fabulous creatures.
The creatures are explained, sort of. But when Carmen and Juni discover an underground temple with a (presumably) magical artifact that, when Juni takes it, causes skeletons to come to life and fight for it, we never learn anything more about the temple, the artifact, or the skeletons (beyond the fact that the skeletons, once they get their artifact back, turn out to be rather decent chaps).
The introduction of magic clearly represents a huge alteration of the techno Spy Kids universe, yet — beyond Carmen’s declaration that the temple is "ancient" and "cursed" — these events are simply thrown in casually, with no explanation or context, or even any relevance to the main plot. Cut these scenes, and the rest of the movie works exactly the same way.
Even more weirdly, Carmen and Juni find that while in the temple they’re incapable of speech, but can hear one another’s thoughts. This also goes nowhere and does nothing, and eventually goes away. Toward the end of the film, long after they’ve resumed talking, there’s a sudden brief relapse into telepathy that’s given no attention at all. None of this is either explained or made use of in the story.
Even the subtitle — "Island of Lost Dreams" — makes no sense, since the film has nothing to do with dreams, lost or otherwise. (At least there’s actually an island.) For a brief moment in the temple it almost looks as if the story is moving toward the idea of thoughts altering reality: When they first discover their telepathic connection, Carmen mentally instructs Juni to "think something," whereupon he thinks, "Your feet stink!" Carmen then curiously sniffs her boot, which clearly does stink, but she seems almost intrigued by this, as if she’s made a discovery. Yet if the movie meant to suggest that Juni’s thought made her feet stink, it forgot about that idea entirely after that one scene.
One of the best things about the original Spy Kids was that Carmen and Juni were recognizable children rather than miniature adults. Now they solemnly deliver lines like, "I’m kind of looking forward to retirement. I can get back to all the projects and dreams I left behind." (What projects and dreams? All Juni did before becoming a Spy Kid was watch Floop’s Fooglies and get bullied in school. Incidentally, this is the only reference to "lost dreams" I can think of in the entire film.)
Sidelined in all this are the parents, who not only have fewer
scenes this time out, but have virtually nothing to do that
matters plotwise. Gregorio and Ingrid spend most of the movie
trying to track down their missing children; and, when everyone
runs into the villain, the parents are unable to contribute to
his defeat or capture. They still look cool, but in practice
they’re ineffectual: first drugged, then duped by the villain,
and finally irrelevant in the climax, their best moments are
probably the few scenes involving Ingrid’s own
Even more annoying are the many scenes involving the Giggles kids, arrogant Gary and his insufferable kid sister Gertie. Carmen thinks Gary is cute, and wants to "change" him. Gertie pushes Gary around, even though she’s several years his junior. Gertie even pushes around her father Donnagon, threatening to "tell mom" what he’s done. Carmen pushes around Juni too, so the girls are always in charge, regardless of age. To be fair, I should note that Juni does come off much better in this film, no longer suffering the taunts (and pratfalls) he did in the original. Still, the emphasis has shifted from Carmen and Juni’s relationship as siblings to their partnership as spies.
It’s not entirely devoid of fun. I liked the crazy amusement-park rides in the opening sequence, Juni’s beetle-like robot Ralph, the weird hybrid creatures and miniature zoos, and the magnetic mode of travel on the island. I also appreciated a couple of sly Tolkien references (though given the timing these may just remind parents that they wish they were home watching this week’s Fellowship of the Ring VHS/DVD release).
But the negatives outweigh the positives. When Carmen and Juni realize that Donnagon and his kids hacked into OSS computers in order to steal Gregorio’s promotion, the Cortez children respond by hacking in themselves, restoring Juni’s active status and misdirecting the Giggles to the Gobi desert while appropriating a plumb assignment for themselves. When Gary tries to take the Transmooker from Juni in order to take the credit for preventing its theft, Juni responds by fighting Gary for it — thereby allowing the Transmooker to be stolen after all. None of this is ever put into any moral context.
Why does a well-liked minor character from the first film have to be turned into a traitor in this one? Why does Carmen and Juni’s Uncle Machete (Danny Trejo), supposedly the producer of the world’s best spy gear, give them supposedly state-of-the-art equipment that then turns out to be inferior to the prototype equipment possessed by the Giggles children? Why does the movie have Gary Giggles boast that he can "deal" with any potential bugs in his prototype equipment, but neglect the payoff of having any actual bugs appear? Why does the film have Juni leaving a recorded message for the president’s daughter while in the background Carmen muses to herself about their secret mission, but neglect the payoff of having someone use the message to figure out what’s going on or where they are? Why does the Transmooker look like an ancient artifact (a bit like the headpiece of the Staff of Ra in Raiders) when it’s supposed to be a super-sophisticated modern device? I could go on and on.
One of the movie’s most bizarrely dissonant elements is a single line of dialogue from bioengineer Romero (Steve Buscemi), who, given a better organized story, would certainly have been mentioned in this review before now. Romero, the creator of the movie’s strange creatures, lives in fear of the beasties he’s fashioned, and at one point muses, "Do you think God stays in Heaven because he too is afraid of what he created here on earth?" (Memo to the filmmakers: God hasn’t stayed in Heaven.)
Director Robert Rodriguez ups the level of action violence and menace, resulting in a picture less suitable for children than the original. As a result, Spy Kids 2 substantially misses its target audience: Too intense for many children yet too juvenile for most teens, this sequel may appeal to a narrow slice of pubescent youngsters who are certainly the target audience of a closing-credit music-video sequence, in which Carmen has to go undercover as a teen pop-diva, and gives a fairly provocative Britney Spears-style stage performance wearing a midriff-baring top.
Whether parents will want to take their kids is another matter. The original Spy Kids is certainly worth catching on video or DVD, but if you’re looking for an entertaining, family-friendly sequel in theaters now, Stuart Little 2 would be a much more charming and entertaining choice than this colorful and energetic but ultimately slipshod effort.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.