Monday, August 22, 2011


The following may be a controversial claim. Spy Kids is Robert Rodriguez’s best movie. The 2001 feature follows a brother and sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), who discover that their parents (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) are spies after they disappear on a mission. It’s up to the kids to save them. Aside from the great plot hook, Rodriguez’s film is filled with imagination of a quick, candy-colored variety. The action is well paced, the special effects have a kind of cartoonish believability, the jokes are actually funny to an audience of both kids and adults, the supervillain played by Alan Cumming is a perfect balance of silly and menacing, the emotions feel real, and the not-quite-heavy-handed moral is peppy wish-fulfillment and empowerment to kids while still respectful of adults. Here’s a family film that genuinely encourages kids to precociousness and curiosity without making the parents the buffoonish butts of every joke. This is all tied together with Rodriguez’s one-man-band behind-the-scenes energy and love of genre that power his best films. In its eagerness to please and its off-kilter sense of surprise, Spy Kids is essentially a kid-friendly Grindhouse movie.

Alas, we don’t have too little of this good thing. Box office success, coupled with Rodriguez’s obvious love for the material, guaranteed sequels. The second (Island of Lost Dreams) retained a minimum of charm and good-will to justify its own existence, but by the super-gimmicky third feature (Spy Kids 3D: Game Over) the whole thing felt flat and dead, done in by its own cartoonish exuberance and childish excesses. After that came a long period of dormancy, but after eight years here we are again in another summer franchise revival.

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World introduces us to a nine-months-pregnant spy (Jessica Alba) chasing down Time Keeper, a supervillain (Jeremy Piven) intending to manipulate time itself somehow. (It’s never all that clear). She catches him just in time to promptly retire and then race to the hospital and give birth. Her husband (Joel McHale) and step-kids (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) have no idea of her secret identity as a freshly retired spy. Of course, inevitably events conspire to reveal the secret and call the siblings into duty as freshly minted spy kids. It turns out that their dog is actually a robot dog with the voice of Ricky Gervais who proceeds to help them flee the bad guys and escape to the good guys’ headquarters.

To loosely tie the franchise together, original spy kid Carmen is back, this time as a full-grown spy who yearns to restart the spy kids division. She’s given the task of meeting and briefing the new arrivals on the truth about their stepmother. She also hands them a massive info dump and gifts them their very own gadgets. And rest assured that Juni pops up as well before all is said and done. It’s nice to see the original kid spies all grown up, especially since they’re really the only reminder that this premise was once used to tell a good story.

Each successive Spy Kids movie has lowered the bar by stripping out a few more reasons why anyone over the age of twelve would want to watch. By the fourth installment, it’s strictly for-kids-only. There are poop jokes, practical jokes, slapstick, puns, candy, and gadgets. It’s fast, loud, and colorful, but it has a kind of over-caffeinated amateurish spastic energy that grates. At the movie’s start, I had low expectations, but the aggressively pandering button pushing wore out its welcome fairly quickly. I’m sure some kids will like this one just fine, but there’s no reason anyone else should be put through the experience. I love Spy Kids, but as far as I’m concerned, there is really only one film about them, two if I’m feeling generous.

Note: The experience (already in headache-inducing 3D) is billed as being enhanced through “4D Aromascope” and therefore comes with scratch-and-sniff cards handed out with the tickets that are to be smelled according to the corresponding numbers that flash on the screen throughout the film. Aside from the feeling of awkwardness brought on by fumbling around in the dark, trying in vain to catch a whiff of bacon or a diaper on a piece of cardboard, it adds nothing.

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