Hey folks, Harry here with she who needs no introduction, but for whom the planets and stars and moons and things that float... well, float around. I am, of course, speaking of the fairest of the femmes.... Alexandra DuPont. I'm currently about 36 hours away from finally seeing SPY KIDS at the Austin Premiere... I'm giddy and anxious and ready to see this thing in like the worst ways imaginable. I know Robert is my friend and I'm quite fond of his work... but folks, Alexandra DuPont has never met him (as far as I know). She has no connections with him (as far as I know), but you'll read her review and begin to see why I'm excited for this 'kid' flick. Read....
Holla, Harcourt Fenton Knowles, Sr. Geek Paterfamilias et al. Allow me a rare bit of self-indulgent prologue:
(a) I'm in an "establishment" with my younger brother Maximillian, who is, I'm afraid, a bit touched. So forgive the brevity and possible general sloppiness of this missive, for I am distracted.
(b) I have just seen the marvelous children's film "Spy Kids."
(b) is, of course, the point. This is a dandy children's entertainment, well deserving of its hype along several critical axes. So let's move along, shall we? Again, time is short and beer is flowing, so forgive me for hijacking Mr. H. the Strong's FAQish format.
I. One Phrase Reviewers and PR Flacks Will Use to
Describe "Spy Kids"
"Willy Wonka meets James Bond."
II. Is this phrase accurate?
Yes, in that glib and reductive manner that every reviewer who seems to be writing pitches instead of reviews has mastered.
III. So the phrase is glib and reductive, then?
Yes. "Spy Kids," despite some marketing that actually makes it look pretty silly, amounts to more than the above phrase (and its marketing) suggests. It's an EXTREMELY well-crafted piece of children's entertainment -- an attention-deficit mix of parental comedy, kid logic, Surrealism, "1000 Fingers of Dr. T"-esque bizarro imagery, and sharp editing and writing. It's entertainment with real craft. It's an image bomb. It's ADD in a film can. It's a ride -- but a good one, for a change.
That said, I worry that filmgoers won't get a chance to find it. I've seen more than a few Talk Backers dismiss this film in advance because of the hype machine (here and at Showest and elsewhere) and more specifically because of the proffered marketing materials. To be perfectly honest, I was doing the same thing -- until tonight.
Here's a disclaimer: The costumes and gadgets and effects, taken out of context, look deeply, powerfully cartoony and stupid. The lurid color scheme -- as featured in the PR -- hearkens more to Barry Levinson's legendary miscarriage "Toys" than to sharp kids' fare.
But I cannot emphasize this enough: This is a movie to be taken as a whole, not in bits and pieces. Like "Willie Wonka," say. The lurid colors and general goofiness serve story here, and are part of an airtight kid-logic universe created by director Robert Rodriguez. After some very real missteps on Mssr. R's part -- on "The Faculty," for example, which I found merely competent, I thought he was beginning to lose his *ganas*, his love for filmmaking -- he seems to have finally found material that matches his editing style, his attention span, and his deep and abiding love of the goofy.
But enough gushing, for I'm not sure "gushing" is what's warranted here. This is a really good kid's movie, not the Second Coming of Our Lord. Here's the breakdown at any rate:
IV. THE STORY
We're introduced to this goofy world in the first damn shot, which rather spoofily begins with the usual helicopter-panning-up-from-the-ocean-to-a-man-made-structure clichÃ©, but then speeds up, cartoonlike, zipping to the window of a gorgeous cliffside Mediterranean estate. Yes, this is the sort of world where retired spies live in palatial oceanside mansions and no one ever asks why. This is also the sort of world where robots resembling giant thumbs and jet packs and virtual reality and sudden window-bursting entrances and Danny Trejo as a crackerjack inventor and Alan Cumming as a combination spymaster/children's-show host and a general colorful luridness go unquestioned.
I know, I know: The above graf sound a bit slighting. But really: the conceit works. Rodriguez never slows down the pace or milks an emotion so you'll feel insulted, not ever. You just roll with it. And you laugh. Or, if you're age 10 or younger, perhaps you giggle.
Anyway. So. The two deadpan spawn (Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, inheriting the "Misbehavers" roles) of the retired spies (Carla Gugino, Antonio Banderas) are unaware of their parents' intrepid careers. That is, until said parents are captured by Alan Cumming's Blofeld-by-way-of-Wonka archvillain and his scheming assistant, Mr. Minion (Tony Shaloub) -- at which point the kids' babysitter (a TOTALLY underutilized Cheech Marin) blows the folks' cover, and the kids are rudely embarked on a rescue mission, which they accept without any apparent moments of doubt.
Well-edited mayhem, sharper-than-necessary dialogue, jet packs, sibling rivalry, doppelganger robots, virtual reality, and dozens of silly gadgets ensue.
V. WHAT'S GOOD?
I'm filling in this section last, so fatigue is taking me. Forgive my brevity. The good VASTLY outweighs the bad here. So, then, the following elements of "Spy Kids" are marvy fab:
(1) The child actors. They underplay, they play their own evil twins, they perform in complicated action sequences, AND YOU NEVER EVER QUESTION THEM. "Spy Kids"' light subject matter belies the enormity of this achievement. Miss Alexa Vega, playing the older, tougher sister, is a real find: Watch for her career to blossom along the lines of Christina Ricci as she reaches puberty (though one hopes she will blossom with less angst).
(2) Nary a tear is shed. Think about that. When's the last time a kid's movie DIDN'T feature a weeping moppet?
(3) Antonio B. and Carla G. As the parents, they maintain a fragile balance of cool and caring -- and they don't fall into the usual kids'-movie parental caricature of being mean, misunderstanding, mushy or moronic. This, too, is an enormous achievement, to my thinking.
(4) As usual, RR's editing and shot placement are just utterly correct and tight as hell, though the editing's almost too tight for its own good; see below.
(5) The imagery -- scary robot men with giant thumbs for heads and arms and legs, for example -- speaks to a sort of dream logic that makes sense to kids (if memory serves). Same with the film's common-sense-defying storyline, which conforms to playground fantasy play-logic in a big way. This was the first time in years that illogical story elements didn't irk me.
(6) The film makes for easy playground re-enactment. Allow me to explain: The spy toys are often converted child-friendly items (electrically charged gum, etc.) that are readily available to enterprising pre-teens. There's also a crackerjack action scene set in a playground -- again, easy to re-enact on the schoolyard.
(7) Certain jokes. The backmasked pleas for help uttered by mutated agents enslaved on the evil children's show. Banderas looking at the camera and dismissing certain emotional outbursts by saying, "Latinos."
Maybe you had to be there.
(8) The casting of Latinos throughout as heroes. The female sibling cast as the "strong" one in the relationship. Little reversals like that.
You get the idea.
VI. WHAT'S BAD?
(1) This from Maximillian: The Dimension-made print we saw here in Minnesota was a bit shabby. "Maybe it was just the print we saw, but it was a bit murky, splotchy," he said. "I'm sure Rodriguez is f***ing furious about it."
(2) Also from Max: "Did the movie go just a LITTLE bit too fast for the kiddies?" This is a profound critique, and a bit double-edged because RR's haste is also a strength, but this is maybe the only really valid critique of the film; Rodriguez cuts so fast it's hard to build character or deep empathy, if that even matters here.
(3) What the blazes happened to Cheech Marin's character? He's transmogrified and then vanishes utterly -- a real waste. Sequel fodder, perhaps?
(4) And finally, this too from dear Maximillian:
Rather too much of the movie may go over kids' heads,
due to RR's hasty delivery of narrative information.
Our screening was packed with the fruit of the Midwest
tot population, and I mostly heard PARENTS laughing,
not their middleborn spawn. That said, children were
(a) attentive as hell during the screening, and (b)
reportedly "spazzing out" in the lobby afterward.
VII. SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
Wild fun. Sustained laughs. A sharp-yet-dreamlike prepubescent mindset. Playground adventure. Take a child. You won't suffer a bit.