Spy Kids

Editor's Note: This review originally ran on the late Daily Radar Showbiz page. Because we believe it to be timely, with a re-release of the film on Wednesday (or we're really lazy), we decided to run it again here. The actual special edition footage has not been viewed by us, but we're sure it's brilliant. And if you'd like to confirm that for us, Mr. Rodriguez, please feel free to write.

Second Editor's Note: In hindsight, the McDonald's Happy Meals toys really blew.

Take a little bit of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, throw in a Wonka bar, and puree a Teletubby just to hear it scream. You might get something like Spy Kids.

Once upon a time four directors got together to make a movie called Four Rooms. When people talk about that movie, they remember a room in which two kids are left alone by their parents and create total chaos. And they remember the father, Antonio Banderas, warning the children, "Don' misbehafe!" Writer/director Robert Rodriguez, who created that "room," liked it so much he took the idea, mixed it in with a bunch of children's classics, and made it into a full-length film. And moviegoers in 2001 lived happily ever after.

Spy Kids opens as a bedtime story within a bedtime story. In a castle in Spain, Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino) tells her children the story of two spies assigned to kill each other who instead fell in love. As she weaves her tale, we see vignettes of their courtship, played with sly humor. These alone prove more entertaining and creative in three minutes than the all the Pierce Brosnan Bond films combined. Ingrid's story ends with the spies marrying and choosing to have a family over their lives of adventure. Cynical daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) comments that Ingrid needs to work on the ending. Instead of living happily ever after, the spies only have "a better life." But of course, their story hasn't really ended.

Though retired from active duty, Ingrid and her husband Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) work as consultants to global spy agency The OSS, a situation which only heightens their longing for adventure. It doesn't help Gregorio that his son Juni (Daryl Sabara) seems to have inherited none of his dash. In fact, the kid is as much of a wuss as Gregorio has to pretend to be, spending all of his time and energy worshipping a television show, Floop's Fooglies. Imagine Danny Elfman (who composed the music) hosting a kiddie show, and you'll get an idea of how twisted it is, though not as twisted as the Teletubbies. But that's for another article.

Of course the host of the show, Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), is also a genius madman who can't decide whether to concentrate on his show's ratings or take over the world. From his warped castle, he hatches a scheme to replace the children of prominent world leaders with evil robot duplicates, dubbed Spy Kids. Aided by his minion Minion (Tony Shalhoub) and bankrolled by the enigmatic Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick), it seems that nothing can stop Floop. The OSS has tried, and their best agents, played by Austin directors Mike Judge (King of the Hill) and Richard Linklater (Slacker), ended up captured and mutated into Fooglies. There can be no worse fate than playing second banana on a mindless kids' show.

The OSS leader Devlin (surprise cameo not to be spoiled here) has no choice but to send Gregorio, who has a darker link to the case than anyone suspects. Ingrid refuses to be left behind, and the two set off in their spy-enhanced flying submersible mini-van. Almost immediately, Floop captures them. Can no one save them? Their back-up, "Uncle Felix" (played by Rodriguez regular Cheech Marin), quickly falls victim to a pack of strange ninjas, leaving Carmen and Juni to discover the truth behind their parents' past, figure out the nifty spy gadgets they left behind, and save the world from being fooglied. Which they do, pretty much in time for dinner.

Sometimes infamous for being a one-man show, Rodriguez pulls out all the stops for the obviously personal Spy Kids, producing, writing, directing, and editing. He earns the controversial "a film by" credit currently at the heart of the upcoming writer's strike. As director, he moves the film at a pace that strikes a good balance for younger and older audiences. If he has a weakness for spelling out some of his jokes, it's forgivable. (Floop has henchman robots called Thumb Thumbs, which are quite literally all thumbs. And unfortunately, a couple of characters point this out.) For the most part, Rodriguez still develops his themes with surprising subtlety, only stumbling a bit in a mawkish resolution. And he uses his actors extremely well, even breaking one of his regulars, the menacing-looking Danny Trejo, out of the bad guy ghetto as Banderas' genius inventor brother Machete.

Trejo looks like he's having fun playing against his usual type, and that echoes throughout the cast. Having started in the films of over-the-top Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, Banderas knows how to play big without being ridiculous, and here will no doubt capture a new generation of fans. Want to have film immortality? Get 'em while they're young. Cumming plays Floop like an evil Willy Wonka (maybe that's redundant), and once again Shalhoub creates a memorable character bit with his myopic Minion. And though she seems too young to have a nine-year-old, the underrated Gugino adds a safe amount of sex appeal.

Most importantly, the spy kids themselves come across well. They don't overplay bits. They don't try to tug at your heartstrings. They're not particularly cute. Though caught in a high-tech fairy tale, they themselves are real. And for that, we are grateful.

Within weeks, toy stores and McDonald's will be filled with Spy Kids merchandise, and we would be remiss not to mention designer Cary White. Some of the designs are grotesque, particularly the Fooglies, but in exactly the way that kids love and uptight adults hate. White shows great imagination, and at least one Daily Radar writer will be in line to get the Happy Meal toys.

Even as production started on Spy Kids, Miramax green-lighted the sequel. It seemed premature at the time, but now it's prescient. If this movie fails at the box office, we deserve nothing but tired studio crap for the rest of the year. Of course, we'll probably get it either way, but at least we have this oasis.


What's it worth? $8

Derek McCaw

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