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Spy Kids   D

Dimension Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, Tony Shalhoub, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo.

Review by Rob Vaux

What am I missing here? Every review of Spy Kids has come back glowing. The audience I saw it with laughed uproariously. The world seems to feel that it's some kind of high-water mark in recent children's films, a surreal romp that parents will love as much as their kids. What I saw made me embarrassed to be there. I saw a spastic grab bag of creepy images and runaway production design disguised as whimsy. I saw a monstrosity from the depths of Disney Channel hell, a funhouse nightmare with no apparent exit sign. I saw a film much, much worse than the film everyone else is talking about.

Maybe I went into the wrong theater.

The Spy Kids I saw stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as rival spies who fall in love during an operation to kill each other. They retire from the business and raise two cute kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) who have no idea what their parents used to do. But then trouble comes calling when evil genius and television host Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) kidnaps Mom and Dad as part of a scheme to take over the world. Aided by his sinister minion Minion (Tony Shalhoub) and a gaggle of deeply disturbing Sid and Marty Kroft rejects, Floop intends to replace the children of the world's leaders with sinister robot duplicates. With the grown-ups out of action, it's up to the two little tykes to foil the evil plan while learning (shudder) some important lessons about life.

Having previously demonstrated the sublime joys of topless vampire hookers and guitar cases full of guns, director Robert Rodriguez has decided to go against type here. Spy Kids contains none of the blood and guts that his previous films revel in, while still striving for the same manic energy and tone. The results badly misfire, presenting a swirling tornado of garish set pieces, clunky chase scenes, and humor that unsettles more than amuses. Every scene comes flying at us with headache-inducing randomness -- a bouillabaisse of MTV chops and flashy images.

In his efforts to create a fairy-tale atmosphere, Rodriguez completely loses his bearings, and tries to cover things up with over-the-top pacing. Given his reputation for innovative action scenes, it's galling that so much of Spy Kids seems lifted from other films. Here's a sequence from From Russia With Love. There's one from The Phantom Menace. Over there's a bit from The Rocketeer. You know a film is in trouble when you start anticipating the next bit it's going to rip off. I shudder to think that childrens' movies have sunk to such depths that such desperate flailing could be viewed as quality.

The intentions, at least, are not at fault here. It's admirable that Rodriguez would want to stretch his wings, and a few moments in Spy Kids reflect a refreshing change of pace. Many of his regulars (Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo) have fun playing against type, while a very game Teri Hatcher cheerfully takes the brunt of some amusing sight gags. Banderas, in particular, has a real touch for comedy -- sorely underused in most of his films -- and he gets a chance to mug for the camera in his scenes. Finally, as other critics have pointed out, its rare for Latino characters to be found at the heart of a movie like this, and Rodriguez has the good sense to let the relative anomaly flourish without turning it into a political statement. Unfortunately, all of this is so thoroughly coated in multi-colored glop that none of the good intentions can fight their way free. In the end, you just want it all to go away.

Admittedly, I'm not the target audience for Spy Kids: a single twentysomething with no kids and a dim view of so-called "family entertainment." But I have a deep admiration for Robert Rodriguez, and I respect his efforts to make a movie that, in his words, he can feel proud to show his children. Tell me he achieved that. Tell me I've overlooked some bit of magic that can turn this dreadful mess into a worthwhile film. Tell me the Emperor's clothes are the finest in all the land. I want to believe it. Please.

Review published 04.02.2001.

For another opinion, read Eric Beltmann's review.

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