Spy Kids (2001)

D: Robert Rodriguez
S: Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara

Entertaining and imaginative children's film which plays like a mixture of James Bond and Dr. Seuss. Adult spies Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) and Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes) have given up their life of international espionage to get married and raise two children, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. When several secret agents go missing, they go back into service, only to fall foul of a nefarious villain, Alan Cumming (Titus), who lives in a fantastical story-book castle and hosts a Pee Wee's Playhouse-type TV show featuring strange monsters as sidekicks. It then falls to the kids to rescue Mom and Dad, using all the gadgets and know-how their parents never even told them that they had. They come to realise the life of excitement and danger their parents had abandoned for the sake of family and do their best to live up to their example, cutting a swathe through the ranks of evil robots poised to take over the world if they don't stop them.

While on one hand the script for this movie could have used a little tweaking, or the cutting room choices been a little bit more careful, Spy Kids is a most unlikely thing: a hands-on blockbuster. It is written, directed, edited, and partly scored by a single creative personality. It is remarkable that a movie of this scale, style, and genre can still boast such credits for a single person, but less of a surprise given the person in question. Robert Rodriguez came to fame with the ultra low budget DIY action movie El Mariachi, which sent shockwaves through Hollywood moneymen for turning a $2 million domestic gross over a $7000 budget in 1992. The director seemed to have graduated to more conventional industry operator status with his subsequent work (The Faculty, From Dusk 'Til Dawn), even if he did demonstrate some style and visual flourish.

Spy Kids is not altogether that different from scores of carefully planned studio programmers in most respects, but it does have a sense of personality which most of them lack. It has a very fast pace, features children who seem not to have been selected for cutesy appeal but rather for their comic flair, offers several surreal touches best left to an actual viewing to reveal, and keeps tight control over an incident-packed storyline in such a way that its human dimension is never lost. Rather than pause for thought now and again while the script committee inserts family values and 'message' moments, Spy Kids gets along with telling its story of danger and adventure, allowing the themes to work themselves through the action. It sounds like screenwriting 101, but it is surprising (or perhaps not) how few contemporary mainstream children's films and videos really have a handle on this type of storytelling. It is also log-jammed with action sequences that somehow never feel like set pieces (possibly because they come so hard and fast that there's no time to separate them from the bridging scenes), and though it is filled with gadgets, gimmicks and special effects, they do not feel like a substitute for narrative or an excuse for merchandising.

There are many imaginative touches in the production design by Cary White, and the sets, costumes, and make-up are all lots of fun. Particularly amusing are the robots who are literally 'all thumbs', beautifully designed to look like menacing heavies while also comically clumsy. The funhouse-style design of the villain's castle lends itself to surrealist fantasy tone, and the film does occasionally seem to drift towards Tim Burton or Dr. Seuss-esque moments. These never really take flight though. It keeps things mostly on an action-adventure level, and though small children may find the mutated 'Fooglies' a bit odd, they're no worse than Barney the dinosaur, and certainly a lot less condescending.

This movie is aimed firmly at kids despite the presence of a cast of adult actors with their own cachement of followers including Cheech Marin, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, and George Clooney. Tony Shaloub (Galaxy Quest) has an amusing role as a mad scientist and Danny Trejo has a nice supporting part as the children's uncle. It is told primarily from the children's perspective though, and there are very few winks to the adult audience. It takes a little while to settle in all the same. The establishing scenes featuring Banderas and Gugino won't excite youngsters much. Once the story kicks in though, it's one of those roller-coaster things which suddenly slips into gear and never lets up. Kids will love it. Adults should enjoy it if they can stand the relentlessness of the action and remember what it was like to dream of stuff like this. The film isn't flawless, or without its niggles and lapses (of course 'correcting' those with the help of the usual studio sub-committees would only have resulted in even worse problems elsewhere), but it is a lot of fun. Rodriguez has clearly enjoyed making it, so you should enjoy watching it. It's no Wizard of Oz, but then you already knew that.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.