Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Alex Cummning
The Saturday matinee audience I saw Spy Kids with at the Beaucatcher actually burst into applause when the film ended -- and with complete justification. Writer-director Robert Rodriguez is one of the masters of ultra-stylish filmmaking, but his material has rarely been in the same league with his stylistic panache. Ironically, he seems to have finally come of age with, of all things, an ostensible "kids' picture." It just happens that Rodriguez' "kids' picture" is not only probably the most sophisticatedly stylish such film ever made, but the most thematically mature of his films -- revealing a depth to the director's imagination that goes a long way beyond the flashy cleverness of such films as From Dusk to Dawn and Deseperado. Yes, it is a movie designed for children. Rodriguez is very up front about that. "I always wanted to do a big family action adventure move, and the idea came to me when I was making Four Rooms with Antonio Banderas," he explained in a recent interview. "In that film, he plays the father of two children and the kids wear tuxes. I remember looking at those kids and thinking: wow, they look like little James Bonds --now that would be a great angle for a family movie." And he proves that it is with Spy Kids, but he does so in such a smart, savvy and stylish manner that he completely transcends the confines of a "kids' movie." He also infuses his film with a degree of thematic purpose, centering on the importance -- and difficulty -- of keeping a family together, and of how keeping secrets from those we are close to is destructive. Thankfully, he manages this without even hinting at being treacly or preachy. The message is brought home with a sense of humor about itself (when Banderas' estranged brother bursts into tears at their reconciliation, Banderas' becomes embarrassed and mutters an excuse for "emotional Latinos") and cleverly broadens the concept of family far beyond the Brady Bunch Syndrome. By the end of the film, we don't have spies and spy kids, we have a spy family (as is made clear to the head spy operative -- a neat surprise cameo by a Rodriguez alumnus) and that's pretty far removed from the safely traditional. The director has said he also wanted to "tap into the possibilities for a family adventure that offers to kids not only imagination but empowerment," and with equal shrewdness, he accomplishes this as he traces the emotional and psychological growth of the kids during the course of their adventures. The film's storyline (which starts out in a delightful fairy-tale manner reminiscent of Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands) is deceptively linear: Retired super spies Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino) are kidnapped by the seemingly evil Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) in order to complete his plan for an army of robot kids, slated to impersonate the children of world leaders. (This aspect of the plot is less straight James Bond than it recalls the satire of Dr. Noah's scheme for world domination in Casino Royale.) It then falls to their children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), to save mom and dad -- and the world, of course. From there, the film becomes a breathless ride that never lets up -- and one in which invention never flags and surprises abound. Sure, Rodriguez has fashioned a film that by its very nature is gadget-driven, but the gadgets are always clever and fresh and never swamp the humanity of the characters. For that matter, the gadgets themselves are almost humanly quirky and don't always work quite as they should ("Another quality Machete Product," sneers Juni when one malfunctions). The level of creativity -- from the design of the gadgets to the freshness of the characters to the gorgeous Antonio Gaudi-inspired production design of Floop's castle -- is nothing short of astonishing. It's a film with so much going on that it will offer rewards on subsequent viewings, which is not all that common these days. The performances throughout are very fine and, while the kids are the central focus, Banderas, Gugino and Cummings (who is given a great Danny Elfman song and production number) aren't just names to help make the film palatable to adult viewers. They are very much integrated into the film on the whole, making it something of an ensemble piece. It's worth noting that the film only earned its PG rating for its adventure quotient and that the closest it comes to feeling the need to pepper itself with vulgarisms is when Carmen exclaims, "Oh, shitake mushrooms!" After years of "family" fare that tries to goose itself out of the realm of the dreaded "G" rating by grafting on inappropriate material, this alone is refreshing. It sounds like the most tired of tired clichés, but Spy Kids is a film that ought to delight any age group.