There are two ways to encapsulate the aesthetic of Blue Sky Studios, the digital animation company that was launched in 1987 and has been a major player in the industry for the last 18 years. The first way is to say that they’re the folks who make the “Ice Age” films. There have been five so far (out of a grand total of 13 Blue Sky productions since 2002), and though they’re undeniably hit-or-miss, the “Ice Age” franchise has been lively and clever company, with its mutating geological landscapes and its squabbling menagerie of characters who coast along on an ice slick of antic personality. The other way to define Blue Sky (apart from the fact that it made “The Peanuts Movie,” updating a brand that already carried its own mythology) is that it’s the studio that churns out films like “Rio,” “Rio 2,” and “Epic” — hyperkinetic squawk-box cartoons driven by a relentless, unruly energy that’s supposed to make up for what the films lack in imaginative innocence. “Spies in Disguise,” the latest Blue Sky movie, falls smack into this latter category.
It features the voice of Will Smith as Lance Sterling, a superspy in a stylish tux, and the way that he’s been drawn, in a dapper, broad-shouldered, tapered-waist stylization of Smith’s own look (even the goatee is a work of designer elegance), Lance seems like just the sort of animated hero you’d want to watch — one with an image strong enough to evoke that of a live actor. Tom Holland, the film’s costar, voices the role of Walter Beckett, a tousle-haired geek genius who graduated from MIT at 15 and invents gadgets for espionage purposes. Together, these two would appear to have the makings of a conventionally funny and winningly incongruous buddy team.
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But then something happens. Walter has an experimental potion he created for the purpose of “biodynamic concealment,” and when Lance ingests it, he immediately turns into…a pigeon. A bright blue one. For most of the movie that’s just what he remains, and he rarely stops complaining about it.
The idea of Will Smith bringing his incredulous smoothness to a kiddie cartoon is endlessly appealing, but “Spies in Disguise” turns out to be a crushingly formulaic, animated-by-numbers comedy about a young hero who’s like Jimmy Neutron with less verve and his generic wisecracking animal sidekick: a cantankerous bird who wishes he could stop being a bird. These two make a lot of noise, but they’re not very funny. Lance is trapped in his pigeon body, and we’re trapped in a movie that’s all frenetic chain reactions and a world-domination plot too blah to give a hoot about.
“Spies in Disguise” is one of those busy, coruscating digital-diversion-as-whirligig, empty-magic-trick movies, like “Cars 2” or “Speed Racer” or (yes) the “Rio” films. (What is it with Blue Sky and birds?) Ben Mendelsohn voices the villain, a scowling dude named Killian who, for some reason, resembles Jonathan Rhys Meyers. His master plan? Armed with a battalion of 1,000 drones, he has stolen the information that will allow him to identify Lance’s fellow secret agents. And that’s the entire plot! It’s a big nothing. (No wonder it gets resolved with glitter and Silly String.) Holland, in this role, sounds unnervingly young (he’s playing the boyish straight man), and Smith acts with spicy confidence when Lance looks like Lance — but as Lance-the-pigeon, he’s peevish and a bit dull. The trouble with a film like “Spies in Disguise” isn’t that it’s less than sparklingly animated but that as technically bravura as it is, there is never anything at stake.