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'Spy Kids': A Charmless Mission

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2001


    'Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega in "Spy Kids." (Dimension Films)
Someone please pull the plug on digitally generated wonder.

I hate to look a gift-horse in the mouth. How often do you get ambitiously mounted movies for young viewers? Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids," a spin on such family entertainments as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," by way of James Bond, is energetic and slickly done, but also somewhat soulless. This PG-rated adventure is loaded down with special-effects creations, such as giant, ambulatory thumbs and submarines shaped like goldfish. But those effects are too glossy and perfect to be true, too computerized to feel even like innocent fantasy. And the central story, about a family learning to love and trust one another, seems merely tacked on for good measure.

Writer-director Rodriguez once made an ingenious low-tech no-budget movie known as "El Mariachi." Even though his motivation is good – to make a razzle-dazzle film for young audiences – he's gone too far in the other direction. He forgot to program charm into his cutting-edge storytelling.

Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) Cortez are former super-secret agents, who have retired to raise their children.

A onetime husband-and-wife professional duo, they have never told their children about their past. So the Cortez kids, 12-year-old daughter Carmen (Alexa Vega) and younger brother Juni (Daryl Sabara), think their parents are uncool nerds.

But a secret agent never really leaves the profession. Gregorio and Ingrid get back into the thick of things when Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a popular children's television show host, kidnaps several agents of OSS – the Cortezes' erstwhile employer.

It seems Floop and his associate, Minion (Tony Shalhoub), financed by nasty Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick), intend to mutate these agents into buffoonish, squiggly headed characters known as Fooglies (who appear on Floop's show). They also plan to create a master race of robotic children designed to resemble and replace the kids of leaders around the world.

But when Gregorio and Ingrid go after the bad guys, they're kidnapped, too, leaving their unknowing children in the lurch. Briefed about the situation by a family friend (Cheech Marin) and aided by their father's gadget-making brother (Danny Trejo), Carmen and Juni decide to rescue their parents.

It turns out those video games they've played over the years have prepared the kids perfectly for this mission. They'll be driving such futuristic machines as a Spy Pod, a fish-like sub that can skim the surface of the ocean or plunge into its depths; and they'll be using all manner of James Bondian gizmos, including jet packs and electroshock bubblegum.

Well, this all sounds like a great movie, doesn't it? Especially when the spy kids infiltrate Floop's Castle, a fantasy citadel full of Floop's creations, including Thumb-Thumbs, giant robotic creations who are literally all thumbs.

But there's so much going on – in terms of special effects – that the human characters seem like mere props. And there's very little acting magic, or funniness, among the kids or adults. There is no working actor more tedious to watch, at present, than Cumming, who has rapidly become a one-dimensional villain for hire. (His role as General Batista in the atrocious "Company Man" illustrates how low he has fallen.) And Teri Hatcher, who plays a narratively superfluous heavy known as Mrs. Gradenko, doesn't fare much better.

The phrase "special effects" seems to have lost its meaning. Now they're par for the course. Maybe the industry can learn a thing or two from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," where special effects were done the old-fashioned way, with wires and visual sleight of hand. Maybe they'll realize that rolling out the computer graphic machinery is only half the battle.

"Spy Kids" (PG, 89 minutes) – Contains naughty language and cartoonish violence.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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