A full-blown fantasy-action adventure that also strenuously underscores the importance of family, “Spy Kids” is determined to take no prisoners in the under-12 demographic, a goal it sometimes dazzlingly achieves. Robert Rodriguez’s film, in which two kids become real spies to save the world from a mad genius, fulfills kids’ empowerment fantasies and features enough techno-wizardry and cool f/x to satisfy those weaned on videogames. With a dearth of similar products in the marketplace, heavily promotable pic should enjoy a robust theatrical release.
This 007-for-kids item quotes freely from films that have gone before it, blending elements of the Bond franchise, “Austin Powers,” superhero movies and a smattering of colorful “Willy Wonka” allusions. But it also manages to be original, given that it’s largely inspired by Rodriguez’s own fantasies and childhood drawings.
At the outset, Gregorio Cortez (Antonio Banderas) and wife Ingrid (Carla Gugino) are quietly raising their two young children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara). Pre-adolescent Carmen loathes her boring family and yearns to run away, while the shy, nervous Juni suffers from warts caused by his constantly sweating hands.
Forced to find their fun vicariously, the kids dream of a more exciting life: They pass their time watching their favorite TV variety show, “Floop’s Fooglies,” hosted by children’s TV personality Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), who, surprise, turns out to be more than just a showman.
Unbeknownst to their kids, Ingrid and Gregorio were once secret agents. Lured out of retirement on a top-secret mission to rescue several kidnapped spies, Ingrid and Gregorio leave their kids with family friend Felix Gumm (Cheech Marin). But when Red Alert sirens begin to blare and black-clad baddies surround the Cortez home, Felix tells the kids that their parents may be in jeopardy, quickly showing them how to make a getaway in a hidden escape pod.
Feeling newly important, Carmen and Juni set off to save their parents. From here, “Spy Kids” turbo-boosts into a rainbow-colored flight of fantasy and adventure. Rodriguez himself dreamed up most of the film’s gadgets, including a fish-shaped submarine pod that can be transformed into a boat, a kid-sized spy plane that can circle the globe in minutes, a high-tech device that can pinpoint the location of anybody on Earth, and tool belts filled with electroshock bubble gum and acid crayons. Cary White’s production design of sets and gadgets is imaginative and cartoonishly inspired.
After finding a secret safe house where they arm themselves with gadgets and briefly fight off a double-crossing agent (Teri Hatcher, speaking of Bond references), the kids set out for Floop’s castle, where their parents are incarcerated. Floop and his henchman Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub) have hatched a plan for global domination that involves cloning the kids of celebrities and world leaders and implanting them with programmable brains.
But it’s doubtful that kids will care as much about the plot, with its elaborate backstory, numerous red herrings and doppelganger villains, as they will the eye-popping f/x and kids-as-superspies conceit. What their parents will care most about, by contrast, is the film’s moral coda, which loudly affirms that family members need to stick together and support each other.
It’s a valid point, of course, but the message smacks of a pointed riposte to those who claim that Hollywood has desecrated family values.
On a technical level, “Spy Kids” is top notch. Kid-friendly tone is maintained through Guillermo Navarro’s lensing and musical selections, including tracks by Danny Elfman, Los Lobos and Rodriguez.