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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” advised Yogi Berra. The catcher’s koan of choicelessness could be the working motto of director Robert Rodriguez, who first did it all on the $7,000 El Mariachi. For less than what Linda Evangelista was charging to get out of bed, the University of Texas student wrote, directed, shot, edited, and sound-recorded the 1993 comedy/thriller, which was not only the cheapest feature ever put out by a major studio but also the first U.S. film released in Spanish.
Over the next seven years, Rodriguez cranked out three kids and four-and-a-quarter movies. He directed a segment of Four Rooms and collaborated with Quentin Tarantino a second time on the gangster film/vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn. Now Rodriguez and his wife, producer Elizabeth Avellan, have taken on yet another genre combinationand a vast audiencewith Spy Kids, a spy movie/thriller/fairy tale/family adventure they can take their sons to.
Not surprisingly, the film takes a few too many forks. By trying to be everything and please everyone and have every character be OK underneath it all, Spy Kids ends up blander than a McNugget Happy Meal. Chief among its painless moral lessons is this head-scratcher: All it takes to be a happy, well-adjusted spy is to stop keeping secrets.
The opening sequence is promising, a flashback to the courtship of superspies Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) Cortez, now the parents of 12-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and 8-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara). Assigned to kill Gregorio, Ingrid (whom Gregorio has been assigned to kill) follows him by dropping gum in his path, then tracking him with gum-sensitive X-ray specs. She dons a series of wigs; his disguise is a pencil-thin moustache he rips off at suitably dramatic moments. Once the two meet, however, they forgo bang-bang for kiss-kiss; cut to their wedding, which suddenly erupts into gunfire and bombs. Their slo-mo escape is a ballet of James Bond clichés, ending with the couple floating on heart-shaped parachutes to a getaway boat and speeding away from their unidentified attackers.
Since the Cold War ended, even grown-up spy films have suffered a shortage of credible foes, but Spy Kids doesn’t bother to provide any geopolitical context, real or imagined, for its principals’ profession. In the flashback, Gregorio works for some Spanglish-speaking Anyland and Ingrid for an even more generic political enemy. Now they both work for the “OSS,” whose chief enemies reflect the film’s macho family values: queeny children’s TV show host Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), power-hungry computer nerd Minion (Tony Shalhoub), and wealthy financier Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick).
The nasty triumvirate is after the “third brain,” an artificial-intelligence device sophisticated enough to run the strong but stupid robot kids they’ve built towhat else?”control the world.” OSS agents supposedly destroyed the walnut-sized object soon after its invention, but rumors persist that someone saved it (it was Gregorio). In their quest for the third brain, the villains have been kidnapping OSS agents one by one, taking them to Floop’s castle in the middle of the sea, torturing them for information on the brain’s whereabouts, and then turning them into brightly colored monsters called Fooglies. Now it’s Ingrid and Gregorio’s turn.
The imprisoned Fooglies are a main attraction on Floop’s TV show, a kiddie fantasia clearly modeled on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But the wispy Cumming lacks Paul Reubens’ maniacal verve, and his scenes fall frustratingly flat. His character is further crushed by another Rodriguez fork-turn: Floop’s not really evil after all. The fey host whimsically switches allegiance from the bad guys to the Cortezes because he’s really an artist. In a drama-queen sequence that should be funnier, Floop confesses that he doesn’t care about world domination; he wants to know why his show is only No. 2. “What do you think my show needs?” he keeps asking, head cocked and wrist loose.
At the story’s start, Gregorio and Ingrid have been hiding their profession from their kids, who are themselves secretly training to be spies. The life lessons are laid out like a sixth-grade workbook: Carmen’s character flawlet is withdrawal from her family, and Juni is a ‘fraidy cat. He has warts on his hands “from sweating all the time.” (Is the Catholic-raised Rodriguez warning his sons not to pull the pollo?) Because it’s clear from the get-go that Juni will soon be kicking robot ass and Carmen will be hugging her mom in the last reel, any surprise or delight along the way is up to the villains, the special effects, and the gadgets.
Rodriguez’s best idea is spy gear that reflects the desires of kids rather than those of Bond-style Space Age bachelors. The Q equivalent here is Gregorio’s estranged brother, Machete (Danny Trejo). The kids’ weapons include an acid crayon that cuts through metal bars, electroshock bubble gum, instant cement dispensed like Silly String, microscopic video cameras that play on a PalmPilot, jet shoes and backpacks, and global-positioning sunglasses. (In keeping with the movie’s pro-family theme, Ingrid’s engagement ring is a laser that cuts through rope.)
One quick but marvelous shot hints at the darker, more satirical movie Spy Kids might have been. It comes after Minion has obtained and replicated the third brain. We see the silver-clad robot kids move down an assembly line on which their heads are opened up and the little brains placed inside with spidery tongs. This creepy-funny image of head-stuffing suggests that the shadowy evil force seeking to control the world might not be homosexuality after all, but mass marketing.
Had this been spun out, Juni could have triumphed with a more interesting form of heroism: media savvy. As it is, he adores Floop’s show, eats Floop’s cereal, and even owns Floop’s action figures, and he turns his slavery into a strength. His knowledge helps Juni figure out that the Fooglies are transmogrified agents and how to negotiate the castle’s virtual room.
But this intriguing (and perfectly family-friendly) theme is dropped quickly in favor of more treacle when the rehabilitated Floop scrambles to reprogram the robot kids. “Binary switch,” he exclaims, explaining to Juni that the child isn’t an evil robot because he’s “pure of heart and pure of mind.” The dopey minisermon made me long for Floop to be crushed by his goon squad of “thumb-thumbs”amusingly clumsy monsters whose legs, arms, and head are five giant thumbs.
Nearly as insipid as Floop’s pure-of-heart speech is the intrafamilial resolution after the Cortezes save the day. Ingrid proclaimsand the other three beamingly agreethat from now on, everyone will be world-class spies, “but no more secrets, OK?” Cake is had and eaten all around: Juni is fearless and wart-free, Carmen values her family again, and Gregorio and Ingrid are fired up by their adventure yet ready to pass the torch to the next generation. “Keeping our family together is the mission we’re fighting for,” chirps Gregorio.
It just doesn’t go that way in children’s stories that work. The really memorable ones don’t celebrate family; they transcend it, because it’s far more powerful to imagine you’re not related to the Muggles who raised you and to set off into the world alone. A kid can’t have an adventure inside a parental hug, and “there’s no place like home” is only a viable ending after home has been seriously threatened. Rodriguez and Avellan haven’t made a movie for children; they’ve made one for parents afraid of their babies turning into roaming teen robots. CP