Movie Mom

I took four young teenagers to this movie and they loved it. But I was not as impressed.

The idea is a cute one — but it was cuter when they did the same thing in two editions of “Spy Kids.” This version is mildly enjoyable, but suffers by comparison to those wildly imaginative and funny movies.

Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) plays Cody Banks, a 15-year-old who has been attending a CIA-sponsored summer camp that has given him all the training he needs to be a junior secret agent. But when he gets his first assignment, to get close to Natalie (Hillary Duff, TV’s “Lizzie McGuire”), the daughter of a scientist, it turns out that $10 million of training that covered every detail of combat and espionage left out one detail — how to talk to girls.

So, Cody gets some quick and confusing lessons and then finds himself in a new school, trying to make friends with Natalie. He finally gets the hang of it just in time to save the day when she is kidnapped and taken to that most popular of spy movie destinations, the bad guy’s arctic secret lair.

Muniz and Duff are always fun to watch and there are some nice stunts, especially a skateboard rescue of a toddler in a runaway car and a snowboard entry into the aforementioned lair. Saturday Night Live’s Darryl Hammond is a lot of fun as the equivalent of James Bond’s “Q” character, the guy with all the gadgets. Angie Harmon does not have much to do except show up in a series of outfits more appropriate for Spy Barbie. And the movie wastes the time and talents of two of Hollywood’s best actors, Martin Donovan and Cynthia Stevenson, as parents of the teens in the lead roles. The story is lifted from a combination of “Dr. No” and the recent (and better) “Clockstoppers.” The movie won’t have much appeal to anyone outside the 10-16 demographic it is aimed at, but there are so few movies for that group that it does not seem fair to complain.

Parents should know that the movie has violence, including one grisly death by disintegration. Characters use some strong schoolyard language (“screwed up,” “play doctor,” “Are you in special ed?”) and there is a locker room scene in which a woman snatches the towel from a boy’s middle and snaps it at another boy’s crotch. (The flesh-colored underpants the boy was wearing under the towel are reassuringly evident.) The adult woman spy dresses like a comic book character, but she is strong and capable. The head of the CIA ia a black man. There is a joke about using the special x-ray glasses to peek at women’s underwear and an adult makes a joke about breasts. It is highly insensitive to have characters use “special ed” as an insult. Most troubling is that one of the young people in the movie is directly responsible for the death of a bad guy — usually, in movies for this age group, they are careful to have the bad guy killed as the result of his own actions, like falling off a building when he lunges for someone. Some audience members may be upset about this.

Families who see this movie should talk about whether they would like to be spies. They might want to check out the CIA’s website. I like the description of what they are looking for in spy candidates: “an adventurous spirit, a forceful personality, superior intellectual ability, toughness of mind, and a high degree of personal integrity, courage, and love of country. You will need to deal with fast-moving, ambiguous, and unstructured situations that will test your resourcefulness to the utmost.”

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spy Kids 1 and 2, Clockstoppers, and Big Fat Liar.

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