Every once in a while a movie comes along that looks like it just might be absolutely terrible. Actually, a lot of films are released that appear to be bad, but some seem more cringe-worthy than others. I recall when I first saw the previews for 1995’s Babe I thought it probably would bite. On the contrary, it ended up being a delightful exercise that overcame its talking animal origins.
Plop 2001’s Spy Kids into the same category. The flick certainly could have been a dud, as it focused on the high concept idea of kids who become action heroes. However, in the hands of veteran director Robert Rodriguez, Spy Kids offered a very light and brisk experience that proved to be consistently entertaining.
At the start of Spy Kids, we meet the Cortez family. Parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) used to be world-class secret agents, but after they married, they retired and started a family. This resulted in daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) and her younger brother Juni (Daryl Sabara). To the outside world, they seem to be a pretty normal family, though Juni’s something of an introverted wimp.
Early on in the story, a new case popped up for the ex-spies, and it proves too enticing for them to resist. Unfortunately, the parents quickly become captured, and despite their ages and lack of training, it’s up to the kids to save the day. Kiddie TV show host Floop (Alan Cumming) has begun to create a superarmy of robots but needs “the third brain” to succeed, and the kids need to prevent this and save their parents.
Nothing about the story itself seemed to be exceptional, but the execution was sublime. Rodriguez was an odd choice for this kind of kid-oriented flick, as he made his name on hyperviolent fare like From Dusk Til Dawn and Desperado. However, at times opposites attract; David Lynch went from Blue Velvet to A Straight Story, so anything’s possible.
Rodriguez neatly spans the worlds of silly kiddie fare and more adult-oriented material. To be sure, a lot of Spy Kids will appeal mainly to younger viewers, as the flick includes a little of the usual kiddie goofiness. However, the movie never indulges in excessive escapades of this sort, and it maintains a nice level of respect for children throughout the film. I never felt it pandered to that audience, which was nice, especially since it made the flick more enjoyable for adults.
To be sure, Spy Kids included a great deal of material that will appeal to older viewers. Much of that that occurred due to the excellent cast. Both Gugino and Banderas seemed to get the tone of the piece, as they made believable parents but kept a light and frothy attitude nonetheless. The kids were uniformly strong as well. Both could - and probably should - have been annoyingly precious and obnoxious, but I found them to be endearing and likeable, and they managed the range of emotions nicely; from action sequences to quieter sequences, they needed to carry the movie to a large degree, and they both seemed up to the task.
The fine supporting cast helped make Kids a hit. Cumming played Floop as a cross between Willy Wonka and Pee-Wee Herman and he seemed very bright and funny. He maintained a nice attitude of innocence despite his evil tendencies; although he’s trying to take over the world, Floop remained more concerned with his TV show’s ratings. Rodriguez gave those scenes a nicely surreal air and they worked very well.
As Floop’s assistant Minion, Tony Shalhoub offered his usual excellent performance. Shalhoub’s money in the bank, and though Minion was less interesting than many of his characters, Shalhoub was able to make the role more compelling than he otherwise might have been. Even less talented actors like Teri Hatcher and Robert Patrick made the most of their parts and created workable personalities.
At its core, Spy Kids is all about fun, but it offers a nice level of familial reinforcement that integrates well. This is the kind of flick that gives us some substance in regard to a mix of issues but never hits us over the head with any social movement. For example, the Cortez family is clearly Latino, and it’s very nice to see protagonists from a minority, but the movie doesn’t beat us with this concept. The cultural elements blend neatly into the tale and enrich it without seeming like an Afterschool Special. I appreciated the unusual elements and respected Rodriguez for making them fit so seamlessly.
Really, my only complaint about Spy Kids relates to some of its special effects. The movie includes a lot of computer-generated imagery, and much of it looks rather artificial. I don’t know if the film’s target audience would notice this, but I found the effects to be somewhat distracting. CGI is being used too much in movies, and techniques aren’t improving to a degree that they can yet cover their flaws. If anything, the audience’s sophistication is growing faster than the technology, and filmmakers need to rein in these elements; too many flicks - like The Mummy Returns - suffer due to weak CGI.
Otherwise, however, I had virtually no complaints about Spy Kids. Director Robert Rodriguez created a lively and very entertaining program that seemed to be consistently delightful and engaging. Virtually the whole film appeared delightful and it should work well for both adults and kids. Think of it as “Tim Burton directs kids in a Bond flick” and you’ll be on the right path.
Some final notes: keep an eye out for a cameo from a big star toward the end of the movie. Don’t look too hard, though, as it’s difficult to miss. Somewhat subtler: one of the characters is named after a Police song. Figure out which one and… well, you get nothing other than smug self-satisfaction. It works for me! Lastly, keep watching through the end of the credits for a minor surprise. I do mean minor, however; I thought it was pretty dull, but I wanted to mention it nonetheless.
Spy Kids appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not flawless, the picture consistently looked very good and provided a satisfying visual experience.
Sharpness seemed to be excellent throughout the movie. At all times the image appeared very crisp and well defined, and I discerned virtually no soft or fuzzy scenes. I also witnessed no moiré effects or jagged edges, though a very slight amount of edge enhancement cropped up at times. Print flaws seemed minor as well. A little dirt appeared on occasion, but this stayed very modest, and the movie generally was clean and fresh.
Colors looked absolutely brilliant. Spy Kids offered a nicely broad and varied palette, and all of these hues came across exceedingly well. From the mix of locales to the wild looks sported by Floop’s Fooglies, the movie showed bold and vibrant colors, and they seemed consistently terrific. Black levels also appeared to be deep and rich, and shadow detail was appropriately dark but not excessively heavy. Ultimately, this was an outstanding picture that just missed a solid “A” due to some minor flaws.
Also very good was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Spy Kids, though it didn’t seem to be quite as strong as the image. The soundfield worked very well, however, and added a lot to the film. Audio moved nicely across all five channels, and the different speakers displayed a lot of activities throughout the entire movie. Music demonstrated solid stereo imaging, and effects were placed appropriately in the spectrum. They transitioned neatly between speakers, and the surrounds added a good level of involvement to the package. The many action sequences gave the track an opportunity to shine, and the mix created a fairly seamless and involving piece.
Unfortunately, the quality of the sound seemed a little weak. Dialogue was slightly trebly and stiff much of the time, and though speech always remained intelligible, it came across as somewhat edgy on occasion. Music displayed reasonable dynamic range, though some of the excessive high end also affected the score; it seemed a little too bright at times, and bass response was good but not terrific. Effects sounded clear and accurate; they also displayed positive but unexceptional low-end, though they packed a nice punch at times. Ultimately, the well-executed soundfield earned high marks but the fairly mediocre audio quality caused me to lower my grade to a “B+”.
The only area in which the Spy Kids DVD flops relates to its extras. We find a theatrical trailer as well as a “teaser” ad plus other promos in the “Sneak Peeks” area. There you’ll locate materials that tour both the Spy Kids soundtrack album and the movie’s website as well as a TV movie called A Wrinkle In Time, a Disney Channel show named Kim Possible, and a book titled Artemis Fowl.
Note that rumors abound in regard to a more extensive DVD release of Spy Kids. For one, a special edition cut of the film hit theaters in August 2001, about five months after the premiere of the original version. From what I understand, the SE includes material shot for the movie but omitted because it would have cost too much to complete the special effects. I haven’t seen the SE, however, so I can’t directly comment on that.
In any case, an eventual release of that version along with some supplements seems likely. Should you wait for this potential special edition DVD of Spy Kids? That’ll be up to you. As it stands, the movie is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. It seemed warm, engaging and surprisingly exciting. The DVD offers strong picture and sound, but it lacks substantial extras. If you’re a big fan of supplements, you’ll probably want to wait for a later DVD. However, if you don’t care about those features - and you also aren’t particularly interested in the longer cut of the film - then the current release of Spy Kids should make you happy.