One of the best things about my job is that, every so often, a film
still catches me by surprise. "Spy Kids" certainly did. An adventure
story aimed primarily at children, the movie is smart, zippy fun. The
production neither panders nor talks down to its audience. The brother
and sister at the center of the tale are believable, likable kids and
their parents are - get ready for this - intelligent, capable and
loving. Bathroom humor is kept to a minimum and the numerous well-staged
action scenes avoid excessive violence. What a relief it is to be able
to review an all-ages film on its artistic merits and not its ethics.
Consider the other PG rated "family friendly" movie in theaters now.
"See Spot Run" has a mother going out of town, leaving her son with an
idiot neighbor. Body function humor abounds, including a slapstick bit
that has the adult male lead repeatedly falling in dog poop. What really
disturbs me are the jokes that bookend the film. The story begins with a
police dog capturing a mobster and biting off one of his testicles in
the process. At the hospital, the doctors explain that they replaced the
testicle with a metal ball and joke that the victim is lucky the dog
didn't bit off the other one, because two metal replacement balls would
clack together. Of course, the movie ends with the dog biting off the
remaining testicle and shows prisoners laughing at the criminal as he
clacks past their cells. Somebody clue me in - when did genital
mutilation become funny?
"Spy Kids" is a welcome antidote to the repellent "See Spot Run," using
imagination instead of cruelty and crudeness. Carmen (Alexa Vega) and
her younger brother Juni (Daryl Sabara) live in a beautiful seaside home
with their parents, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid Cortez (Carla
Gugino). Mom and Dad are a sultry couple devoted to their children. What
the kids don't know is that they are also former spies. Once agents from
different countries assigned to "erase" each other, they instead fell in
love, married and retired to raise a family.
Needless to say, they get drawn back to the business. Shortly into their
first joint mission, they are captured and end up in the headquarters of
Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a foppish hybrid of Willy Wonka and Pee Wee
Herman who hosts Juni's favorite TV show. But there is evil behind the
scenes, as inventors prepare an army of robots disguised as children.
Papa Gregorio has the device necessary to radically increase the
efficiency of the creatures and the bad guys will stop at nothing to get
it from him.
Back at home, "Uncle" Felix (Cheech Marin) shows up to reveal Mom and
Dad's secret to the kids. After a brief respite at a safe house filled
with enough cool gadgets for a dozen Sharper Image stores, Carmen and
Juni set off to find their parents and save the world, zooming through
the sea in a submarine pod that looks like a goldfish, while a slew of
wicked people (including Teri Hatcher) chase them.
During the course of their adventures, they get to use jet packs,
electroshock bubblegum and super-computer sunglasses. They watch as
secret agents are transformed into bizarre creatures with Silly Putty
faces and used as background characters on Floop's TV show. They deal
with guards that have huge thumbs where their arms, legs and heads would
normally be (Why are the guards so ineffective? Because they're all
thumbs!) They move from one colorful locale to another, including a
nifty virtual reality room reminiscent of the holodeck from "Star Trek."
The storyline is silly and convoluted, but even at its most dense, it is
easier to follow than either "Mission: Impossible" movie.
Director Robert Rodriguez ("From Dusk to Dawn") maintains a frenetic
pace, with the whole film clocking in at a mere 86 minutes. A bit less
action and a little more character development would have been nice, but
he does provide enough quiet moments for viewers to become fully
invested in the family. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara make an agreeable
brother and sister team, squabbling the way kids do, but coming together
when it counts. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino are even better as the
parents; they quickly establish and maintain a great lusty chemistry
while keeping their tongues properly in cheek during the action scenes.
Even the usually irritating Alan Cumming has some nice moments - a
virtual cloud-backed chat between his character and Juni is one of the
best segments in the film.
Had Rodriguez added a few more scenes like that, I would have enjoyed
the film more (and I definitely could have lived without the glaring
product placement for a certain Mc-ubiquitous company). Regardless, "Spy
Kids" is a hoot, offering fun for adults and children alike. And just
think, they managed to do it without sacrificing a single testicle.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott