The "Spy Kids" series comes to a presumed conclusion with this technologically idiosyncratic picture that has the charmingly cheesy look of the world's first digital 3-D home movie. Texas auteur Robert Rodriguez, who did everything from the directing, writing and editing to the music, production design and special effects, hasn't come up with much in the way of drama or suspense for this third installment of the lucrative series.

The “Spy Kids” series comes to a presumed conclusion with this technologically idiosyncratic picture that has the charmingly cheesy look of the world’s first digital 3-D home movie. Texas auteur Robert Rodriguez, who did everything from the directing, writing and editing to the music, production design and special effects, hasn’t come up with much in the way of drama or suspense for this third installment of the lucrative series. But his concept of placing the characters inside an unpredictable high-tech videogame produces unusual visual effects that, coupled with the notably older Cortez family kids undertaking other-worldly adventures, will be fun for viewers up through early adolescence and at least offers novelty value for accompanying grownups. Tidy quick returns loom from a wide opening, followed by a relatively swift theatrical falloff but reliable biz in home markets.

Original “Spy Kids” in 2001 pulled a surprising worldwide gross of $150 million, while the sequel the following year dipped to $121 million globally. Totals for “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” no doubt will slide further, and while the new effort lacks the sense of freshness offered by the first entry and the adventurous scale of the second, Rodriguez is at least trying something different here and doesn’t degrade his franchise as ignominiously as Universal did when it added a third dimension to “Jaws.”

At the outset, the somewhat brawnier Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) is trying to make the transition from junior spy to underage private detective when the former head of the OSS and now U.S. president (George Clooney) recruits him to rescue Juni’s missing sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega). Latter has disappeared into a complex virtual reality world created by the Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone, doing plenty of jocular mugging), who, per OSS agent Cesca Giggles (Salma Hayek), wants to enslave the minds of the world’s youth with his diabolical inventions.

Juni’s mission — and there is no doubt that he will choose to accept it — is to make it to the fifth and final level of the game, which is deemed unwinnable, and rescue Carmen without allowing the Toymaker to escape. At the 12-minute mark, with the set-up disposed of, the aud is cued to put on cardboard 3-D glasses, with their separate red and blue lenses, enter the game and see what the latest fling with three-dimensional filmmaking looks like.

The first thing you sense is that you’ve just entered a cartoon, as most of the elements that surround Juni in his new environment look like either primitive digital computer creations or something out of a child’s coloring book. Clarity and depth of hues immediately vanish, and things take on an air of extreme artificiality that sometimes feels like the computerized equivalent of student-painted sets for a high school stage production. In no way attempting to compete with the sophisticated effects of Pixar and other high-end brands, Rodriguez goes the other way to produce something that seems as hand-made as perhaps anything can that is electronic in origin.

By the same token, some of the special effects creatures have the herky-jerky moves of the stop motion animation Ray Harryhausen was doing 50 or 60 years ago.

After being catapulted to the moon, where he discovers his grandfather (Ricardo Montalban), who was crippled and forced into a wheelchair by the Toymaker years earlier, Juni finds himself in the Arena of Misfortune, a giant gladiatorial stadium where, atop a huge robot warrior, he does battle with Demetra (Courtney Jines), a tantalizing girl his own age.

One of the coolest sequences for kids is when Juni, along with his newly discovered sister and three vidgame masters, surf across lava as they attempt to find the game’s Level 5. After a decisive new encounter with Demetra, the 3-D glasses come off briefly at the 55-minute mark, whereupon the kids recruit their parents (top-billed Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, in appearances that could have been shot in a day) and a few old friends to battle some Iron Giant-sized monsters unleashed upon downtown Austin.

Despite the obvious technical effort expended, pic bears a tossed-off feel, almost like something family and friends threw together for their own amusement. It’s hard to dislike a movie this light-hearted, but there’s something terribly ephemeral about it as well; it’s a film of complete weightlessness.

Sabara and especially Vega have grown a lot since the last installment only a year ago, a fact underlined by post-final credits snippets from their respective audition videos taped in 1999, when both looked like little kids. Other outtake tag-ons reveal the bare green rooms in which the actors worked, with the backgrounds to be filled in later by computer.

Spy Kids 3D: Game Over

Production

A Dimension Films release of a Troublemaker Studios production. Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Robert Rodriguez. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Directed, written, edited by Robert Rodriguez.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, 3-D/HD video), Rodriguez; music, Rodriguez; production designer, Rodriguez; art director, Jeanette Scott; set designer, Ronn Basquette; set decorator, David S. Hack; costume designer, Nina Proctor; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Stacy F. Brownrigg; sound designer, Dean Beville; visual effects supervisors, Rodriguez, Daniel Leduc; digital visual effects, Hybride Technologies, Troublemaker Digital Studios, Computer Cafe, the Orphanage, Janimation, CIS Hollywood; line producer, Bill Scott; assistant director, Brian Bettwy; stunt coordinator, Jeff Dashnaw; casting, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Laser Pacific, L.A., July 14, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Gregorio Cortez - Antonio Banderas Ingrid Cortez - Carla Gugino Carmen Cortez - Alexa Vega Juni Cortez - Daryl Sabara Grandfather - Ricardo Montalban Grandmother - Holland Taylor Toymaker - Sylvester Stallone Donnagon Giggles - Mike Judge Gary Giggles - Matt O'Leary Gerti Giggles - Emily Osment Felix Gumm - Cheech Marin Francis - Bobby Edner Demetra - Courtney Jines Arnold - Ryan James Pinkston Rez - Robert Vito Machete - Danny Trejo Fegan Floop - Alan Cumming Alexander Minion - Tony Shalhoub Cesca Giggles - Salma Hayek Romero - Steve Buscemi Dinky Winks - Bill Paxton Devlin - George Clooney The GUY - Elijah Wood
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