Spy Kids (2001)

Oh shiitake mushrooms

Spy Kids is, if not quite a gold standard for family-focused action-comedies, certainly an excellent specimen. Robert Rodriguez brings together a memorable cast, a tight script, some great production design, and some fun set pieces into a satisfying whole.

The Spy Kids series would never again take its adult characters even a little bit seriously, but the first outing gives plenty for the grown ups to do. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino have some genuine steam and chemistry, very believable as ex-super-spies who fell in love, but also burdened with the mundane trials of parenthood.

The kids’ plotline, on the other hand, is aggressive wish fulfillment for the film’s main target audience of suburban kids: Boring, disappointing childhood lives upended by a secret agent life where only they can save the day. The actors are solid for kids, with Alexa (Pena)Vega in particular very confident in front of a camera.

One thing I really appreciate is the film’s understated handling of the family’s Hispanic identity. It underpins many of the family conflicts and adds meaningful color and representation to the characters. It also deepens the tension between kids immersed in their own lives versus parents who want to see their own values better reflected in their kids.

The movie’s vision of espionage is kids comic book malarkey, where a “spy” is basically a global super-soldier who battles scheming villains. But it works well for the movie: The gadgets are prominent, varied and fun (though I could have used less of the electro-gum). There’s martial arts and slick outfits and a kickass score and a great villain base.

The movie has some low-key intelligence, too, in the way that it depicts media and real-life intersecting, giving everything a mild satirical edge. I wanted even more from the Floop character, though, as the movie couldn’t decide how unhinged and dangerous to make him. (Also, if you’re going to make evil genius Pee-Wee, just cast Paul Reubens, cowards, as underrated as Alan Cummings is in general.)

The movie was an early and influential adopter of digital video and editing. A lot of the effects look primitive today, but Spy Kids as Robert Rodriguez’s digital video playground would become a recurring series theme.

It isn’t a flawless, timeless classic in the vein of something like Babe, though it’s not that far off. The script has some weird writing hiccups (Carmen sometimes acts 6, sometimes 16), and it very much operates on kiddie-movie logic in a hand-wave-the-details sort of way. But it’s got energy and heart, so it’s overall a damn fun watch regardless your age.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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