Jessica Alba was dressed for her role in Robert Rodriguez’s ultra-violent “Machete” when, on a break from filming, she stopped to change her baby’s diaper. Rodriguez says he saw her performing this most domestic of tasks in her action-movie attire and knew it was time to start up the “Spy Kids” series again, this time with Alba taking her baby with her on a mission.
The first Spy Kids was about Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), children of super-spies who got caught up in the family business. It was sharp and funny and imaginative and made it clear that the real adventure is being part of a family. It was a rare film for audiences of any age with strong, smart female and Latino characters. And Rodriguez, known for his ultra-violent films for adults (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Machete”), kept the “Spy Kids” series refreshingly non-violent. If this fourth in the series is not as good as the first, it is better than the unfortunately titled Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. And much, much better than The Smurfs.
Alba plays Marissa Wilson, a spy who goes into labor in the middle of a chase but manages to capture the evil Time Keeper on her way to the delivery room. She quits to be a stay-at-home mom for the baby and her twin step-children, Cecil (Mason Cook) and Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard). Her husband Wilbur (a likable Joel McHale), has a “Spy Hunter” television show but somehow never figured out that his wife was not a decorator.
A year later, the Time Keeper is creating chaos and Marissa, the twins, and the baby are off to save the world and do some family bonding as well. The original spy kids, now grown up, arrive for some bad guy chasing and family conflict resolving as well.
Everyone gets a chance to know each other better, of course, but the film has a bit more substance. Cecil is hearing-impaired and he and everyone around him are completely comfortable with it. It is very rare in movies of any age that we get to see a character with a disability rather than a disability with a character. Cecil is a regular kid who happens to have hearing aids and Cook gives a nice comic snap to his comments. The gadgets are a lot of fun, including a robot dog with more functions than a Swiss Army Knife, hilariously voiced by Ricky Gervais, and “hammer hands” gloves that can punch through walls. Like all parents, Rodriguez is dismayed by the ever-quickening passage of time. So in the midst of the silliness with a “4 dimension” scratch and sniff card to accompany some of the story’s most odoriferous moments, a muddled storyline, and too much potty humor, there is a sweet theme about seizing the moment for what matters most.
Parents should know that there is a lot of action-style peril and violence, but no one gets hurt. There is a lot of potty humor including a dirty diaper and, as in the earlier films, an almost-swear word. The movie includes some themes of blended family adjustment issues. A character talks about missing his late father. A strength of the film is the portrayal of a disabled character who is completely comfortable with his hearing impairment and is capable with and without his hearing aids.
Family discussion: Why was it harder for Rebecca to feel comfortable with Marissa than for Cecil? Which one of the gadgets would you most like to have? When does time feel slow for you and when does it feel fast?
If you like this, try: the first and second “Spy Kids” movies