This week’s release of the fourth in the “Spy Kids” series is a good reason to revisit the original.
Imagine James Bond crossed with “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and you might have an idea of what to expect in “Spy Kids,” the best family movie of the spring. It has just the right combination of giddy fantasy, exciting adventure, wonderful special effects, and sly comedy to be ideal for 7-12 year-olds and their families. It is doubly welcome, after the terrible “See Spot Run,” and especially because it features strong females and characters and performers from the Latino culture.
Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are the children of Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), once the cleverest spies in the world, but now loving parents who make a living as consultants. Or so they say.
It turns out that once the kids go to bed, Gregorio and Ingrid flip a few switches to connect to a command center that keeps them involved in spy missions, though now from a safe distance.
When top secret agents start disappearing, Gregorio and Ingrid call on “Uncle Felix” (Cheech Marin) to watch the kids and climb back into their spy gear to go off and save the world. But then they, too, disappear, and it is up to Carmen and Juni to rescue their parents, and, while they’re at it, the rest of the world, too. But first, they have to learn to respect and trust each other.
They also have to learn how to use a bunch of gadgets that would leave James Bond, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and even Inspector Gadget green with envy. I loved the way that instead of ray guns or other destructive devices the kids use fantasy versions of stuff that kids know best. They fight the bad guys with bubble gum that gives the enemy an electric shock, silly string that turns into cement, and, that ultimate dream, a back-pack-y sort of thing that enables them to fly. Similarly, instead of scary ninjas or soldiers, most of the bad guys are either thumb-shaped robot creatures who are literally all thumbs or a bunch of robot children whose most menacing aspect is glowing eyes and super strength.
Any good adventure story needs a great villain, and this one has the always-great Alan Cummings as Floop, the star of Juni’s favorite television program who is also the mastermind of the plot to create an army of robot children. His sidekick is Minion (Tony Shaloub), who transforms the captured spies into backwards-speaking, silly-looking mutants for Floop’s show. But one of the interesting things about the movie is that nearly everyone turns out to be something different than what they or others thought, even Minion and Floop. The transforming in the movie is not limited to the mutants.
Parents should know that the movie includes a little bit of potty humor (which most kids will find hilarious) and one almost-swear word. Younger children might be frightened by the mutant creatures, but most will find them more silly than scary. Characters are in comic peril and there is a certain amount of head-bonking violence, but no one even gets a scratch except for one villain whose encounter with flames leaves her having a very bad hair day.
Be sure to tell kids that the thumb-robots were inspired by drawings writer/director Robert Rodriguez did when he was 12, and ask them to come up with some pictures of things they’d like to put into a movie someday. Good topics for family discussion include how to know which secrets to share, the challenges of siblinghood (a two-generation challenge in the Cortez family) and the movie’s conclusion that spy work is easy compared to keeping a family together, which is not only more of a challenge, but more important.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.”