Our review of Spy Kids (Blu-ray), published August 7th, 2011, is also available.
Real spies…only smaller.
The phrase "family film" often denotes the most tepid, infantile dreck the entertainment industry can produce. Movies assigned this tag are all too frequently slapdash, soulless and spiteful of the intelligence both of their youthful target audience and the adults who feel compelled to shell out for cineplex tickets and DVDs.
Spy Kids is a family film. Spy Kids is not one of those "family films." It's a high-tech, high-energy, high-spirited adventure romp written and directed by the most unlikely of talents: Robert Rodriguez, the bloodsplattering auteur behind such horror and action flicks as From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, and The Faculty.
Fasten your seatbelts.
Facts of the Case
Nine years ago, Gregorio Cortez (Antonio Banderas, The Mask of Zorro, Original Sin) and his wife Ingrid (Carla Gugino, The One) were master spies, top-level secret agents revered throughout the worldwide intelligence community as the best of the best. Once adversaries, they met, fell in love, and became an unstoppable team. But as happens with maturing adults, their priorities changed. They wanted a family. They wanted peace and quiet. They wanted what the civilians among us would call a "normal life." So they retired to the sun-drenched coastal city of San Diablo, and became parents to two bright youngsters—daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) and son Juni (Daryl Sabara)—who think Mom and Dad are merely pleasant but boring computer consultants, not secret agents who saved the world on a regular basis only a decade before. ("My parents can't be spies," Carmen says at one juncture, "they're not cool enough.")
Ingrid and Gregorio are summoned back to duty to deal with an emergency that has resulted in several of their former colleagues going missing. But nine years of inactivity have dulled their once lightning-quick spy reflexes, and the Cortezes fall into the clutches of their mysterious enemy, children's television host Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming, doing a less frenetic, less absurdly geeky spin on Pee-Wee Herman), and his evil minion, Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub, the Men in Black films, TV's Monk), a man whose unfortunate surname clearly shaped the entire direction of his life. Floop and Minion have fomented a diabolical plan to use an army of lifelike androids—modeled after the children of government and military leaders—to take control of the world. Those agents who have uncovered the plot and attempted to thwart it wind up transmogrified into the bizarre creatures—"Fooglies"—that populate Floop's kiddie show (think of Captain Kangaroo reimagined by Tim Burton and Rob Bottin). Gregorio and Ingrid appear destined for the Fooglie factory.
With their superspy parents on ice and in mortal danger, there's only one thing Carmen and Juni can do: leap into action and rescue Mom and Dad! And, naturally, save the world in the process.
At first blush, the notion of Robert Rodriguez creating a film for and about children should send frozen daggers pinpricking their way up and down every parent's spinal column. But the more one thinks about it, the more sense it makes. Kids love excitement and adventure, and Rodriguez delivers those goods. Kids appreciate a skewed sensibility, like that which permeates all of Rodriguez's works. Rodriguez has a track record of producing high-quality genre films on attenuated budgets, and most major studios like to spend as little on so-called "family films" as they can possibly get away with. So who better than Rodriguez to craft one of the most exciting, intelligent, and memorable movies for audiences of all ages to come down the pike in a long time?
There's so much to appreciate about Spy Kids that it's difficult to know where to begin. But Rodriguez is a terrific jumping-off place. He's written a taut (only 88 minutes, credits included), smart, rollercoaster of a script, then directed it with imagination and joy. Working with a relative pittance (the reported budget for Spy Kids was in the realm of $35 million, one-third the cost of a Stuart Little), Rodriguez pours every penny onto the screen, using a barrage of digital effects and some of the wackiest set designs and prosthetic makeup concepts you'll ever see. Floop's island castle is a phantasmagoric fantasyland where anything can happen, and does. A host of freakish vehicles, devices, weapons, and characters parades through the film, against a surreal backdrop that looks more or less like the world in which we live, but is somehow crazily off-axis. Floop's personal guards are robot creatures made entirely out of giant thumbs—their bumbling and pratfalls are highlights of the film.
But mostly Rodriguez's film is about a family, four real people who love and help and misunderstand and tease and keep secrets from one another. I'm hard-pressed to think of another recent movie family that felt as genuine as the Cortezes. Gregorio and Ingrid truly love and are loved by their kids. They are well-meaning, kind, and competent parents, unlike the idiot fathers and mothers typical of film and television households. Carmen and Juni likewise manifest all the symptoms of true sibling rivalry: they exasperate each other and seize any opportunity to put the other in his or her place, but they obviously love each other deeply and will sacrifice themselves unblinkingly for one another. The random putdowns hurled back and forth by sister and brother hold no malice—it's just the way kids communicate. And while they may call each other "Warthog" and "Booger-Breath," no one outside the family had better threaten either of them or there'll be heck to pay.
It's also a pleasure to see a movie where the kids are written to speak and act like real kids, not like smart-mouthed miniature adults. Carmen and Juni are afraid of the things kids fear and bold in that unheeding way kids often are. They talk and react like elementary school children who are intelligent and well-educated for their ages. Rodriguez again deserves credit for his script's wise perception about kids, and for recognizing that kids can be interesting protagonists without being worldly, filthy, or prematurely sexualized.
The cast of Spy Kids contributes some deft, playful work. Antonio Banderas throws himself into the dashing spy turned nebbish father. Alan Cumming is perfectly cast as the immature, obsessive TV host, as is Tony Shalhoub as the man who may be the real Wizard behind Floop's curtain. The two young co-stars, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, are simply marvelous—fresh and lively without any child-actor staginess. Carla Gugino is a decent actress and makes a serviceable Mother Cortez, but she's about a decade too young for the role: to have had an extensive career in espionage and have already been retired for nine years, Gugino's Ingrid would have needed to join the spy game while still in grade school. (Gugino was a last-minute replacement for the originally-cast Kelly Preston, who is nine years older but became pregnant prior to the start of filming.) Always-welcome Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo turn up as Cortez uncles (one of whom is a genuine relation, the other of whom is actually an agent providing the family's undercover security). George Clooney cameos briefly as the head of the Cortezes' intelligence network.
On the down side, erstwhile Lois Lane and Bond girl Teri Hatcher adds nothing (is there anyone who still believes this woman has talent?) to her limited role as a double agent experiencing the worst of bad hair days. Ex-Terminator Robert Patrick overacts and overreacts as Floop's co-conspirator.
On DVD, Spy Kids dazzles the eye with a first-rate anamorphic transfer. Every frame is crystal-bright and explosively vivid. Given that this film utilizes almost every hue in the visible spectrum, the color balance (aside from some issues with fleshtones during the opening scene in the Cortez house) is pristine, without any breakup or bleed. Both bright spots and shadows come across appropriately balanced. No digital artifacts or source print flaws are evident anywhere. My only complaint about the image is a trace of edge enhancement that crops up more often than necessary. That aside, even the most critical viewer will find this an outstanding transfer.
The excellent picture is augmented by equally impressive audio. The Spy Kids soundtrack kicks out the jams. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is immersive, involving, and consistently active. Every action sequence features motion effects that fly across the soundfield in every direction. Dialogue is clear and solidly focused front and center, while the jaunty, pulse-pounding score bounces and throbs all over the place. (Danny Elfman contributed the main theme; several other composers, including Rodriguez himself, added the remainder of the music.) Bass response is bottomless and powerful. This all represents a very fine job by the sound engineers. French and Spanish speaking audiences will find translated dialogue tracks for their enjoyment.
Now the bad news. As much effort as the Dimension arm of Mickey's Magic Kingdom expended on the DVD rendition of Spy Kids, they did exactly the reverse in fleshing out the DVD experience. The only extras here are the teaser and theatrical trailers for the film—both full-frame, but with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound—and a handful of ads for Disney TV product (the miniseries A Wrinkle in Time, the Disney Channel animated series Kim Possible) and the Spy Kids website and soundtrack CD. (I hate to break this to Eisner and company, but advertising doesn't qualify as DVD extras.)
A special edition DVD of Spy Kids has long been rumored, but now appears to have been postponed to coincide with the release next year of the DVD of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, coming to theaters in August 2002. A recent (July 23, 2002) reissue of the earlier DVD pressing exactly replicates the barebones original. So fans of Spy Kids will have to wait at least until sometime in 2003 for a more satisfying DVD of this entertaining movie. That's a shame.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Robert Rodriguez takes a huge leap by casting his film primarily with non-Anglo leads. The city where the Cortez clan resides is a multicultural, bilingual community—street signs and billboards appear both in Spanish and English. (Some of the exteriors were filmed in Chile.) Much in the manner of Bill Cosby's 1980s Huxtable clan signaling the television-viewing world that black Americans have "normal" lives too, Rodriguez here demonstrates the strength, diversity, and genuine family values of Latin culture.
Spy Kids is everything a real "family film" should be. Kids don't need a shower and a brainwash when they're through watching it. Parents don't need a pot of coffee and toothpicks under their eyelids to sit through it. Every member of the family can enjoy this movie; no one will be embarrassed afterward. And if anyone says, "Play that again!" no one will mind. It's fun. It's cool. And the family in it is, too.
Don't have a family? That's also cool. Pick up Spy Kids and have a blast anyway. You won't be embarrassed either.
These Spy Kids are definitely guilty of some highly enjoyable espionage capers, but as this Judge reads the law, that's no crime. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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