Online Edition                         Updated April 4, 2001

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Alan Cumming plays Floop, a children’s TV show host and one of the many joys in Spy Kids.
Adventurous Spy Kids fun for the whole family

Spy Kids
At Granville Seven

Reviewed by Peter T. Chattaway

From Dusk Till Dawn. The Faculty. Desperado. These sexy, violent thrillers are not the sort of films that make you think, "I bet this director could make a fun movie for the whole family." But Robert Rodriguez has always had a cartoonish sensibility, and he has done some of his best work with children. Before he made a name for himself with the low-budget indie hit El Mariachi, Rodriguez directed Bedhead, a short film about psychic powers and sibling rivalry that starred his kid brother and sister. Also, his contribution to the short-movie anthology Four Rooms, a black comedy about two kids who discover shocking things in their hotel room, was by far the liveliest installment in an otherwise dull film. It was only a matter of time before Rodriguez set aside his vampire strippers and alien body-snatchers and made a movie for the parentally-guided crowd.

Spy Kids is that movie, and while, on the one hand, it’s an obvious spoof of James Bond, complete with rocket packs and cars that turn into mini-submarines, it’s also a surreal story that rivals Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for sheer out-and-out weirdness. The early scenes, in which Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino) tells her children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabata), a bedtime story about two spies who met and fell in love, starts on a sly romantic note, then goes deliriously over the top, as enemy aircraft swarm down on the wedding. Ingrid’s story is, of course, all about how she met the children’s father, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas), back when they were spies for enemy countries. But now that they have kids, the parents have semi-retired, and they have kept their past a secret from the children. So Ingrid pretends the story is just make-believe. Describing how she met Gregorio, when she was supposed to assassinate him, she says, "Her mission was to take him out." Her daughter Carmen’s eyes light up: "On a date?"

Things get even stranger as missing spies are transformed into multicoloured mutants and placed on a children’s TV show hosted by Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a frustrated showman who has his own brand of cereal and seems to be more concerned, in the end, with fine-tuning his show than achieving world domination. Floop—assisted by his mad-scientist henchman Minion (Tony Shalhoub, unrecognizable behind his ultra-thick glasses), the female agent Ms. Gradenko (Teri Hatcher), and an army of clumsy robots who are, quite literally, all thumbs—kidnaps Ingrid and Gregorio because they have access to "the third brain," a top-secret gizmo that can make his robots smarter. And that’s when Carmen and Juni, wowed by all the cool things they suddenly learn about their parents, decide to ride to the rescue.

Fortunately for Carmen and Juni, the gadgets they find in the family’s secret hiding places are ridiculously easy to use. There is a lot of action in Spy Kids, as one might expect from a Rodriguez film, but no real sense of danger. There is also very little character development, beyond what is required to keep the story going or to make obvious points about families sticking together and family being the biggest adventure of all. Still, Rodriguez gets many details right, from the toilet on one mini-submarine to the dizzying centrifugal force of a merry-go-round, here amplified by the fact that it’s set in super-fast motion by an evil robot. It’s also encouraging to see that a film with such mainstream ambitions makes no effort to hide its ethnic roots; indeed, it positively revels in them, from Carmen’s full Spanish name, which acts as a password, to Gregorio’s self-deprecating remark about Latinos and their emotions. The soundtrack also goes in unconventional directions for a spy movie, mixing Los Lobos with Danny Elfman and other composers. One gets the impression that Rodriguez made this film for his own family, first of all; luckily, the rest of us should at least get a kick out of it, too.

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