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: 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.)
Also worth noting is the movie’s use of digital video and editing. A lot of the effects look primitive today, but Spy Kids as Robert Rodriguez’s digital video playground will be a recurring series theme.
The movie has some weird writing hiccups (Carmen sometimes acts 6, sometimes 16), and it very much operates on kiddie-movie logic, but it’s got energy and heart, so it’s overall a damn fun watch.
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.