a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Robert Rodriguez, famous for his tongue-in-cheek action pictures like Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn, must have decided to give something to folks that snubbed his hyperviolent hits. Spy Kids is a frivolous but fun adventure movie that will give kids thrills and adults some smiles…everybody goes home happy.
I admire Rodriguez for so enthusiastically presenting something for such a young target audience. This movie is a festival of celebrities, special effects, and whimsical imagination. There’s not much of a story here to talk about, and that would usually bother me, but the characters are so busy running from one surprising action sequence to the next, we don’t have much time to care.
The plot follows the Cortez family, who live in a futuristic fairy-tale house on dazzling ocean-view cliffs. Mom (Carla Gugino) and Dad (Antonio Banderas) are parents who really love their daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) and their son Juni (Daryl Sabara). To keep them safe, they conceal their true passion and their past…Ma and Pa Cortez are secret agents. Parenthood has put them on hiatus and, yeah, they’re kinda bored once the kids go to bed. We see them kicking back and toying with their old surveillance gadgetry and their spectacular hidden computers. And when Carmen asks for a bedtime story, we are treated to a hilarious James Bond sendup that tells the story of these two secret agents falling in love…it’s the movie’s best sequence.
But sure enough, their enemies aren’t through with them yet. Soon, Mom and Dad are lured out of hiding to investigate the disappearance of some fellow agents. They walk right into a trap set by a naughty television personality called Floop, who’s sort of a twisted descendent of Pee Wee Herman, or perhaps Captain Kangaroo, or maybe Willy Wonka. Our heroes are rusty, and before long, they’re duped by Floop and chained up in his elaborate castle somewhere in fantasyland.
Floop is a melancholy character. He seems to meddle in criminal activity out of general boredom. Far nastier is the man manipulating him…someone called Minion. Together, these baddies are building and army of monstrous children who have no minds. It’s not hard to see Rodriguez setting up the dichotomy…kids who watch TV all the time get brainwashed, but kids who have involved and loving parents develop brains and good hearts.
And sure enough, the good the Cortez kids are anxious and determined to rescue their parents, using their brains and their collective brawn. If they can only get along long enough, they’ll find their way to Floop’s castle and save Ma and Pa.
The actors playing heroes all give warm and winning performances. I especially enjoyed watching Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino…wow, where’d she come from? Gugino has the glow and the smile of Julia Roberts, but in my opinion there’s something more visceral and arresting about her screen presence; I can imagine her headlining an action movie a lot more easily than America’s Oscar-winning sweetheart. (Oh by the way, the Cortezes, we notice right away, are Hispanic. Now, that shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. How many family movies bother to notice if its characters HAVE an ethnic heritage?) Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara argue like real siblings, and they act with as much confidence as their onscreen parents. Children in the audience will definitely walk away fantasizing about having all of the cool spy gadgets that these two inherit.
Only the villains disappoint. Alan Cumming is just okay as Floop; the script doesn’t give him much to do but wander around his castle and sigh. Tony Shaloub is a great comedy actor, but he too can’t find any memorable lines or original villainous deeds to do. Teri Hatcher…well, she certainly tried to bring some life to her bizarre character, and Robert Patrcick furrows his brow and tries to find a character in his one-dimensional supporting villain. There’s a ho-hum appearance by Cheech Marin and a few folks from other Rodriguez films hanging around as well. A smart cameo at the end provides a desperately needed lift; it’s one of the movie’s most memorable surprises.
But the real star of the show is Rodriguez himself. The director is clearly having a blast showing off all of these great sets, vehicles, and bizarre weapons (one of which stretches people’s heads as though they were play-dough.) Movie buffs will notice that Rodriguez picked up quite a bit from watching not only James Bond, but even obscure fantasies like Babe: Pig in the City and The City of Lost Children.
Next time (and Spy Kids is sure to have a sequel) I hope Rodriguez further indulges his love of eye-popping sets and effects. I hope he continues to get good work from good actors. And if he really means what he’s shouting here about the value of family, he might provide us more of what we are sorely lacking…worthwhile, wholesome family entertainment like this. I would, however, ask him to develop a richer storyline and lay off the preaching. Show us the family working together; don’t tell us about.
But I can hardly complain. Spy Kids is a step in the right direction for family entertainment, and in this dry season, it’s worth a visit…whatever your age.
Writer/editor/director – Robert Rodriguez
Director of photography -Guillermo Navarro
Music – Danny Elfman, Gavin Greenaway and Heitor Pereria, John Debney, Robert Rodriguez and Los Lobos
Production designer – Cary White
Producers – Elizabeth Avellán and Robert Rodriguez
Dimension Films. 90 minutes. Rated PG.
STARRING: Antonio Banderas (Gregorio Cortez), Carla Gugino (Ingrid Cortez), Alan Cumming (Fegan Floop), Teri Hatcher (Ms. Gradenko), Cheech Marin (Felix Gumm), Danny Trejo (Machete), Robert Patrick (Mr. Lisp), Tony Shalhoub (Alexander Minion), Alexa Vega (Carmen Cortez) and Daryl Sabara (Juni Cortez).