SPY KIDS (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action Sequences

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Danny Trejo, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, George Clooney, Mike Judge & Richard Linklater

The 90’s gave birth to many talented new filmmakers. One of these names was Robert Rodriguez. With two violent westerns and an R-rated vampire comedy behind him, it seemed a bit odd that the next step in Rodriguez’s career would be making a children’s film. However, he wowed audiences and critics alike with SPY KIDS. This is a film that I have fond memories of watching multiple times during my childhood. I saw this film in theaters and owned the VHS tape (back in the day when they were still making those), so I was a bit hesitant to revisit this film with so many years having passed me by since I last viewed it. I was expecting my memories to be overly nostalgic and the actual movie to be a potential disappointment. However, that was not the case at all. SPY KIDS has aged fantastically over time and remains a quality dose of family entertainment that provides fun for both adults and children alike. Color me pleasantly surprised.

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Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez are far from your typical married couple. They were originally rival spies hired to eliminate each other, but they fell deeply in love instead. Soon enough, they got hitched and had two kids. Now raising their children, Carmen and Juni, these married former spies find themselves out of their element in domestic life. Any average filmmaker could have stopped there and called that the plot, but Rodriguez continues by having Ingrid and Gregorio abducted during one last mission by a madman. It’s up to young Carmen and Juni to thwart a super villain’s dastardly plans (which involve robot assassins) as well as rescue their parents.

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There are a number of reasons why SPY KIDS stands high above most of the recent live-action efforts masquerading as family entertainment. The biggest of these is the stunning amount of creativity on display. Robert Rodriguez clearly had a distinct vision of how he wanted to tell this story, when to incorporate humor and how to combine multiple character arcs. Most of the laughs come from good old-fashioned humor on display. I couldn’t point out any moments of innuendo and there was only one potty joke (which is brushed off casually as Rodriguez giving the obligatory obvious poop joke that we all saw coming). In the wrong hands, SPY KIDS could have been an easy, overly familiar kid-friendly spin on 007 (think AGENT CODY BANKS). Instead, this film seems intent on entertaining everyone and it accomplishes that goal in style.

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What makes SPY KIDS even more enjoyable is the talented cast. Antonio Banderas (known for playing typically darker action heroes) and Carla Gugino (who later went on to star in R-rated comic book adaptations like SIN CITY and WATCHMEN) play against their usual characters as two spies who are out of their element as parents. This provides a lot of jokes that adults will latch on to. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, both newcomers at the time, star as brother and sister: Carmen and Juni. Though they can be wooden at times, they come across as likable protagonists worth rooting for. Other familiar faces show up in Danny Trejo (playing their Uncle Machete…get it?), Robert Patrick (as a briefly seen baddie), Cheech Marin (as an undercover agent) and George Clooney (in a brief, but very funny cameo). The best casting decisions come in Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub as the main villains. Cumming plays his evil mastermind as sort of a demented Dr. Seuss type who also happens to run a nightmarish kids’ show (think a cross between YO GABBA GABBA and TELETUBBIES). Shalhoub is the power-hungry Minion who becomes increasingly concerned that his boss is more obsessed with his TV program rather than the actual evil plan at work.

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SPY KIDS runs under 90 minutes and feels perfectly paced as a result. There’s a lot of stuff happening in every scene and not a wasted frame. There are also two story-arcs distinctly aimed at adults and children. The adults will connect more with the two former spies dealing with the stresses of starting a family and kids will connect with the sibling story-arc about the importance of family, though the latter can definitely be appreciated by older viewers as well. The action scenes are brought to life through mostly good effects that combine CGI and practical work (including mutated kid’s show mascots and robotic guards made entirely of thumbs). It’s downright whimsical and enjoyable all the way through.

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I am definitely surprised at how well SPY KIDS holds up over a decade later. The story is creative, the characters are all fleshed out, and the humor is likely to connect with viewers of all ages. While most live-action family fare in the new millennium has struggled to find that nitch for both adults and children, Robert Rodriguez walked that tightrope with 2001’s SPY KIDS. This film manages to bring solid entertainment that can be appreciated by viewers who want something creative and deliberately silly. Give it a look and you’re likely to have a lot of fun.

Grade: B+

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