Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Movie Review: Spies in Disguise

Spies in Disguise *** / *****
Directed by: Nick Bruno and Troy Quane.
Written by: Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor.
Starring: Will Smith (Lance Sterling), Tom Holland (Walter Beckett), Rashida Jones (Marcy Kappel), Ben Mendelsohn (Killian), Reba McEntire (Joy Jenkins), Rachel Brosnahan (Wendy Beckett), Karen Gillan (Eyes), DJ Khaled (Ears), Masi Oka (Kimura), Carla Jimenez (Geraldine).
One could accuse the new animated children’s film, Spies in Disguise, of being hypocritical. It is, after all, a children’s film that lectures against the use of violence, while still being an action packed adventure film with a lot of violence – because, of course, the hero has to be someone capable of kicking butt in order for his decision to take a less violent approach mean more. But for me, I appreciated the message of the film that is aimed at children who we always tell to “use your words” – after they’ve smacked their sister in the face for stealing their M&M’s. It’s at least slightly more interesting than another film telling kids to be themselves, and always be kind, etc. No, sometimes, there are bad guys out there – or at least people you aren’t going to get along with. But there is another way of dealing with them than killing their entire family – which I’m pretty sure is what the hero of Spies in Disguise did before the movie begins.
The movie is an animated film from Blue Sky – still probably best known for Ice Age, and milking Ice Age to death with sequel after sequel after most of their other films didn’t do quite as well. Normally, they aren’t quite as good as Dreamworks, who of course aren’t as good as Pixar, but what their films lack in writing, they make up for in garish colors – colors that seem to be designed to distract children from the lack of story or character, and to completely blind their parents. In short, for the most part, they are bland and interchangeable with most other animation churned out by Hollywood that isn’t Pixar.
Spies in Disguise is one of their best though. It is a fast movie action, spy thriller that begins with a sad little boy – Walter – saying goodbye to his police officer mother (this being a kid’s movie, you can guess what will happen to her). He is a genius, who creates many inventions, all designed to help spies and cops – without hurting their enemies – and he grows up to join the Agency in their weapons department. He is the exact opposite of Lance Sterling (Will Smith) an ultra-cool spy, who likes to work alone, and in a style of smash and grab – he destroys everything in his path, and doesn’t care. Through a series of events too complicated to explain though, Lance and Walter end up having to team up when the Agency thinks Lance has turned against them – and he seeks out Walter who said he had a way to make someone invisible. It turns out Walter was speaking metaphorically invisible – in that his new invention can turn someone into a pigeon. It is so new however that he hasn’t figured out how to change one back yet. Anyway, the two of them – meek Walter, and Lance as a pigeon, go on a globetrotting adventure to find the real bad guy – Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) – who has stolen some very advanced, very violent technology, and plans on using it against the agency itself.
The movie moves so quickly, and glides along on the charming voice work by Will Smith and Tom Holland as the unlikely duo at its heart, that its only gradually that the obvious message becomes that way. Smith and Holland are clearly two of the most likable stars in Hollywood – even when you cannot see their faces – that you root for them. And Mendelsohn’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked either, He is excellent as the bad guy whenever he plays them – but he is especially good at playing the wounded bad guy – the bad guy who still may be bad, but has a legitimate point, and legitimate wounds that turned him that way. That is eventually what we get from him.
The animation is mostly typical of Blue Sky – cartoony and bright and fast moving, but at least not as garish as usual, and not quite as headache inducing. The action sequences are well handled – especially when they get more inventive when they add in Walter’s weird gadgets, and the film turns more slapsticky and comic. The film does get a little dark at times – when you realize the implications of what Killian is saying for instance – but most glides along at a brisk pace.
In short, Spies in Disguise is a fun little kid’s movie – with a little bit of a different – and welcome – message, even if it’s also more than a little hypocritical in how it delivers that message, and how Lance remains a hero even when we realize what he has done. Complex this film is not – but as a fun distraction for kids, that won’t be painful for adults, it delivers.

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