|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 September 2001|
As the title basically states, "Spy Kids" is aimed at children, but it's also very entertaining for adults. Which makes it something of a pity that Dimension Home Video's DVD release has virtually no extras. A commentary track, a making-of documentary, some words by writer-producer-director Robert Rodriguez would have been very welcome; kids wouldn't have cared, and adults would have gotten more out of the disc, which is otherwise up to today's standards.
One of the surprise hits of 2001 (a sequel is in production), "Spy Kids" seemed way out of character for Rodriguez; he roused attention with "El Mariachi," extremely cheap but very entertaining. He followed it up with "Desperado," the first sequel to "El Mariachi" (he recently completed a second), and the flamboyant, all-stops-out vampire action thriller "From Dusk Till Dawn." He seemed established as a director of action/horror -- and then he made "Spy Kids." In this case, saying the made it is more true than for most directors; Rodriguez edited the movie (as he usually does), wrote it, produced it, acted as camera operator and sound re-recording mixer, supervised the visual effects and even wrote some of the music.
In interviews at the time of its release, he said that despite what he was known for, he always wanted to make a light, funny adventure movie for kids. He really succeeded; kids absolutely adored the movie, and this would be a good Christmas present for almost any child between 8 and 14. (Over that, and they would not consider it cool, even if they actually liked it.)
Unusually, "Spy Kids" is well-structured but the story itself won't exactly hold your interest; it's more a matter of a premise being fulfilled than a solid story being told. Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega), who seems to be about 11, and her impulsive younger brother Juni (Daryl Sabara) are sure that their parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), however kind, are basically pretty boring, just like all parents.
What the kids don't know (but we do) is that they were international spies for different countries, whose paths crossed often enough until they fell in love and got married. (We see this in flashback.) They're still kind of in the spy game, and Gregorio is concerned that other agents are disappearing. They have "Uncle" Felix (Cheech Marin) come over to watch the two kids while they take off on a mission in their car that converts to a submarine, but they're promptly captured.
The bad guys are Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), whose TV show "Floop's Floogies" is very popular (especially with an unsuspecting Juni); he's assisted by his minion Mr. Minion (Tony Shalhoub), and reports to Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick), some kind of international villain. He wants an army of robots to help him conquer the world, or something, but doesn't like Floop's Thumb Thumbs, robots with thumbs for legs, arms AND heads. "They're all thumbs," Floop admits, while ushering in his alternate idea: robots in the shape of children -- in this case, Lisp's children, but they can look like any kids. All he needs to make them perfect is one last doodad. (The robots are named "Spy Kids" but we know who the real spy kids are.)
At the Cortez home, black-clad figures attack, and Felix quickly explains to the kids that their parents are secret agents. "My parents can't be spies!" exclaims Carmen. "They're not cool enough!" However, she and Juni escape in a peculiar little submarine, which takes them -- after some adventures -- to a safe house on an island, which is wonderfully equipped. To their surprise, Ms. Gradenko (Teri Hatcher) arrives, claiming to be their parents' ally, but she's a villain, too.
Things get pretty wild from here on, with Carmen grabbing a Flash Gordon-like rocket belt, rescuing Juni, and landing them in a city. There they meet their Uncle Isadore (Danny Trejo, playing a good guy for once) and battle spy kid robot duplicates of themselves. Finally, they end up at Floop's island fortress, where lots more stuff happens.
"Spy Kids" is very briskly paced; there's hardly a slow moment in it, and when there is, Rodriguez parodies it (Juni's behavior on the way to the safe house, for example). It's also astonishingly colorful, one of the most vividly designed movies of any sort in quite some time. Rodriguez wanted to give the family a Latino background instead of the standard WASP origins, so production designer Cary White created a beautiful hacienda with richly-colored walls and furniture. Floop's fortress is flamboyant, but is one of the few areas where the film's only-adequate budget shows -- it's not quite as grandiose as was clearly intended.
The movie is ripe with special effects, including elaborate makeups for the disappeared secret agents, whom Floop has turned into comic/grotesque characters for his TV series. The effects are remarkably consistent; a lot of movies these days (the Harry Potter film is a perfect example) have effects that vary in quality of execution. The effects in "Spy Kids" are all on precisely the same level (competent to good), and also match Rodriguez' lively, even flamboyant, visual touches. (Fast motion, whip pans, etc.) The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is as bright and colorful as the production design. It's a very unified movie, clearly just the film Rodriguez wanted to make.
The sound is perfectly acceptable, though the surround speakers only kick in briefly, as when something flies in from the left or right; the rest of the time, the sound is confined to the more central speakers.
Generally speaking, the cast is excellent; Banderas and Gugino enter into things with great spirit and verve (and just a little wink at the audience); Alan Cumming is fun as the villain who learns the error of his ways; Robert Patrick is full of amusing bluster, but the great Tony Shalhoub is short-changed by a role that doesn't challenge him. Teri Hatcher, as usual, overdoes things a bit, and her return toward the end wasn't really necessary, nor is she funny in these scenes. George Clooney, however, is pretty amusing in his end-of-the-movie cameo. (He apparently asked Rodriguez to be included somehow.)
The movie, though, rests on the shoulders of Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. Vega's been acting since she was literally two years old, and she's very good here; dreamily melancholy at the beginning, tough as nails in the action scenes -- just exactly everything Carmen should be. And she's a good match with the moon-faced Daryl Sabara, who's a little less professional, but still fun as the curious, impatient Juni. Both are in the sequel.
As mentioned above, there simply are no extras to speak of on this otherwise well-produced DVD. There are language choices and a couple of trailers, but really, a movie as unusual and refreshing as "Spy Kids" needed classier treatment. Robert Rodriguez surprised everyone with his movie, both in terms of how entertaining it is, and for how much money it made. It would have been very interesting to know more about how he developed the film and really, why he moved so far away from what he'd been doing. "Spy Kids" is good enough to have warranted fuller treatment on the DVD -- but the kids at whom the movie was aimed will just be glad to have their own copy.