Our review of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Blu-ray), published August 14th, 2011, is also available.
"Creativity goes much further than skill."—Robert Rodriguez
When danger rears its ugly head, the government can always count on its best and brightest secret agents: Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), elite spy kids of the OSS. But even a simple mission like rescuing the president's daughter from a wild theme park ride can go awry when snotty rival agents Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment) try to step in first—and get credit as the real heroes.
And with the accolades come the hot assignments: Gary and Gerti land the plum Ukata Mission to recover a stolen gadget that can shut down all technology, with a little help from their father Donnagon Giggles (Mike Judge), the new head of OSS, who really wants the dangerous Transmooker all to himself. Don't count Carmen and Juni out so quickly though. They waste no time stealing the assignment and heading out to thwart Donnagon's plans for world conquest.
But on that mysterious island where the Transmooker is hidden, our Argonauts will clash with titans: giant monsters created by a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi). Can the kids save the day before the grown-ups show up to mess up the whole operation?
When Spy Kids first hit the theaters, I took my 10-year-old "little brother" (my wife and I were volunteers with Big Brothers/Big Sisters at the time) out to see it. For the next three weeks, all he would talk about was what he would do if he had his own jet pack. Robert Rodriguez had tapped into something with that first film. Spy Kids did not talk down to kids, and it did not seem designed to sell toys. It was the sort of film that a 10-year-old himself might write. And it was outlandish fun.
Even better, Spy Kids offered a surprisingly non-Hollywood approach to the spy parody, showing kids that secret agents did not have to be white. Rodriguez unapologetically made his Cortez family bilingual and mixed Tex-Mex imagery into his world. This gave Carmen and Juni more personality than the cookie-cutter characters more often found in children's programming, and part of the success of the film might be credit to a broader range of identification among kids who are normally left out of the children's popular culture (except perhaps as sidekicks to the white hero).
Indeed, Spy Kids tested so well in previews that Disney greenlit a sequel (through their Dimension label) before the first film even hit wide release. And like most sequels, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, tries to top its predecessor in scale and complexity. For a 100 minute movie, Spy Kids 2 has about three hours of plot, swinging wildly from an opening sequence in an insanely over-the-top amusement park run by Bill Paxton (with rides like the "Vomiter" and the "Juggler") to the eponymous island, an homage to Ray Harryhausen, complete with a centaur and fighting skeletons. The camera never holds still. Everybody talks fast, moves fast, and generally works slight of hand to distract the audience from the huge plot holes and the low-budget green screen effects. And writer/director (and production designer, and about a dozen other jobs) Rodriguez invests this all with headlong fervor, like a kid hyped up on Cocoa Puffs trying to, well, explain the plot of Spy Kids 2.
And only a 10-year-old (or somebody trying to think like one) could come up with a name like "Transmooker" for the secret gadget everybody is after.
Rodriguez tries to cram every idea possible into the film's running time, and often many wonderful ideas and performers seem underused. Many faces from the first picture turn up—Floop and Minion (Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub), Uncle Felix (Cheech Marin), and Uncle Machete (Danny Trejo, who steals every scene he is in)—but they just seem to be dropping by too briefly. Only Mike Judge, cast as a lark in the first film as Agent Donnagon, has a major role, and surprisingly manages to hold his own in front of the camera. Even Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as our heroes' parents mostly turn up for comedy relief this time out. And the pace and clutter of the film ends up burying the otherwise inspired casting of Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban as the Cortez grandparents.
By all rights, Spy Kids 2 should come apart at the scenes like an overstuffed toy (and moments like some glaring McDonald's product placement do not help). Yet, for the most part, it works. Yes, the movie goes for short-term thrills instead of building suspense. Yes, it feels like it is constantly yelling at the audience until nothing has much urgency anymore. But everybody in the film seems to be having such a good time that their joy is infectious. Rodriguez loves making movies, and his cast and crew are gleefully along for the ride. This makes the film much more fun than it probably ought to be.
Such youthful enthusiasm is evident on the commentary track Rodriguez turns in for the new DVD of the film. He seems to be talking directly to adolescents watching the movie, and avoids too much technical detail (apart from gushing over the HD camera system he used to shoot the film). Instead, he focuses on the creative process, offering tips on how to make your ideas come to life. That "do-it-yourself" theme gets another go in the latest installment of the director's "Ten Minute Film School" series, in which he narrates over behind-the-scenes footage of several special effects sequences. With a budget of only $37 million (paltry for an action film these days), Rodriguez had to approach this project with an indie sensibility, looking to maximize scale and detail within his means. While some of the end result looks a little rough (the green screens are pretty obvious), Rodriguez takes the attitude that the homemade feel encourages kids to pick up cameras and make their own movies.
And so, most of the extras on this disc focus on the kids. Disney tries to make up for their bare-bones approach to Spy Kids by overloading the sequel with supplements (plus offering a gorgeous anamorphic transfer that seems better lit and color-balanced than I remember in the theater). There are featurettes about how the young cast members trained for their stunts ("A New Kind of Stunt Kid"), an eco-tour home movie ("School at Big Bend National Park"), a short puff piece about how much the kids love the gadgets ("Essential Gear"), and an ABC Family promotional special ("Total Access 24/7"). We also get some behind-the-scenes home movies, a trivia game, and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary by Rodriguez. But the oddest extra is a music video (the same as runs through the film's end credits) starring Carmen and Juni. Juni does a hilarious Angus Young impersonation, but I suspect Carmen's sexy hip gyrations are illegal in some countries.
If Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams had been made by any other Hollywood director, it would either self-destruct or be dull as dirt. By Robert Rodriguez should be commended for keeping his sense of fun in a town (and under the thumb of a company) that sees children only as little purchasing machines. Orson Welles likened his first experiences in moviemaking to having "the biggest magic kit a boy was ever given." Robert Rodriguez clearly still thinks of films that way too. Hollywood could use more directors like that.
Robert Rodriguez and his crew are released by this court for acting in good faith. Disney is commended for a fine job packaging this DVD. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• Commentary by Robert Rodriguez
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