Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Steve Buscemi
The big question: Is Spy Kids II as good as the unalloyed delight of Spy Kids? No, it probably isn't, but it's not far from it, and the comparison may be slightly unfair, since a great deal of the charm of the first film lay in the fact that it was such a surprise. This round, that surprise is replaced by expectations -- and it's not much short of miraculous that writer/director/co-producer/co-composer/editor/co-cinematographer/co-designer (whew!) Robert Rodriguez was able to meet those expectations. Rodriguez has carefully followed and effectively expanded on the elements that made Spy Kids work. It has the same basic set-up of a not-really-evil genius (Steve Buscemi replacing Alan Cumming) whose work is co-opted by genuinely (more or less, since all evil in these films tends to be playful) evil forces (Mike Judge taking over from Tony Shalhoub). It's filled with clever gadgets and quirky characters, fantastic sets, cinematic invention and a sheer love of invention for its own sake. In addition to all the characters from the first film, Rodriguez throws some more into the mix this round, including Ingrid Cortez' (Carla Gugino) parents, who are somewhat mystifyingly billed as Grandpa and Grandma Cortez, which would suggest they were meant to be Gregorio's (Antonio Banderas) parents rather than hers. In any case, they are delightfully played by Holland Taylor (one of the few bright spots in Legally Blonde) and screen legend Ricardo Montalban. (It's interesting that both this film and Goldmember chose to bring in iconic performers as spy fathers in the same season.) Since the principal characters in Spy Kids II are already established, Rodriguez is at liberty to get right down to the plot this time -- a suitably fantasticated affair involving the race for a gadget that knocks out all power on a mysterious island that doesn't register on any chart and can't be detected by radar. The kids -- still flawlessly played by Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara -- are now full-fledged secret agents, though ones who, in the course of the film, have fallen into some disgrace, thanks to the machinations of bratty spy kid Gary Giggles (Matt O'Leary, Domestic Disturbance). It's only due to Carmen (Vega) hacking into the OSS computer that the pair land the assignment -- sending Gary and sister Gerti (Emily Osment) on a bogus mission in the Gobi Desert. It's all a set-up, of course, for everyone to end up on Romero's (Buscemi) "Island of Lost Dreams." Romero is a bit of a mad scientist, having engineered an array of strange cross-bred animals that he inadvertently enlarged to dangerous proportions and now lives in fear of. With the expanded budget given him thanks to the success of the first film, Rodriguez goes all out in his depiction of these fanciful creatures, but does so in a unique and pleasing manner. Rather than go for realism, he opts to recreate the "Dynamation" style of stop-frame animation master Ray Harryhausen. Fans of classic fantasy will easily spot loving references to Jason and the Argonauts and Harryhausen's Sinbad movies. Even those not especially familiar with Harryhausen will still notice the distinctive quality of the approach. (One person, knowing nothing of Harryhausen, told me it reminded her of Clash of the Titans -- Harryhausen's last film.) It all adds up to fantastic fun. If Spy Kids II errs at all, it's in the area of its "messages." Spy Kids had its share of messages -- notably about families keeping secrets and the definition of family -- but they were more adroitly handled than they are here, where there's a sense of them being forced into the material, rather than springing naturally from it. Even so, it's not every movie that would dare to put forth the idea that maybe God -- like Buscemi's Romero -- doesn't show Himself because He's wrongly afraid of His own creations! Attempts at depth -- successful and otherwise -- to one side, Spy Kids II is a great follow-up to the original and one of the best things in theaters right now.