Even in his gun-heavy films for grown-ups — El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn — Robert Rodriguez has always had an infectious, childlike sense of play. (It was missing from his competent but undistinguished The Faculty, where he was essentially a hired gun.) It would seem natural, then, to turn him loose on a kiddie adventure and give him money for lavish, surreal sets and special effects. Spy Kids, which Rodriguez wrote, directed, and edited, plays like the pilot episode for a smarter-than-average Saturday-morning kids’ show that you always read good things about but always somehow forget to catch. It’s considerably colorful and entertaining while it spins in front of you; it’s also almost immediately forgettable.
That may be by design, though. Rodriguez knows kids (he has three of them), and he knows that kids love repetition. Spy Kids is the sort of light comedic caper kids will want to watch over and over, with lots of eye-catching weird stuff, like robots made entirely out of thumbs or an evil lair with a jigsaw-puzzle motif out of Dali. Adults may respond gratefully, in that the movie — unlike the majority of crap shovelled at kids — is far from stupid, it’s energetically crafted, it prizes brains and bravery over brawn and force, and it’s not weighed down by winking pop-culture references that are meant to keep parents from yawning but usually don’t.
Adult fans of Rodriguez’ other films will also be glad he’s finally got a major hit on his hands, and he did it without selling out. Spy Kids feels like a Rodriguez riff through and through. The young heroes, Carmen (Alexa Vera) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), are not lovable wise-cracking urchins but regular kids whose parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) just happen to be spies. When Mom and Dad are kidnapped by the evil genius Floop (Alan Cumming), host of a kiddie show that resembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse more than a little, Carmen and Juni rush to the rescue, aided by a variety of nifty vehicles and gadgets. Rodriguez consistently gives his heroes the sort of immensely cool toys most kids would love to play with.
In fact, for that very reason, Spy Kids often comes across as a very, very covert broadside at the James Bond series, which is, after all, a boys-with-toys franchise; it’s as if Rodriguez is breaking the spy genre down to its essentials and finding that, when you get right down to it and take away the Bond girls, these movies are for kids. (Or at least for men who like to regress to adolescent boyhood for two hours.) Rodriguez generously makes Carmen the older, smarter one, and Juni the fearful one; both kids, though, get to rise to the occasion, as when Carmen swoops around on a jet backpack and saves her brother’s life, or when Juni finds a way to communicate with a backward-talking mutant in Floop’s dungeon.
In general, Spy Kids is light-hearted and sometimes ingenious family entertainment. However … “What’s missing?” asks Floop when he senses that his show lacks a certain something. Spy Kids does, too, and I think I can pin it down: the film carries the vague insecurity of the beginning of a franchise (the studio has already greenlit the sequel). Obviously, nothing in the movie stands out as being bad, but nothing really stands out as being amazing, either. You occasionally see Rodriguez pulling back, not because this is a kids’ movie but because he wants to hand Dimension a solid start to a Spy Kidstentpole, without anything too outrageous or expensive.
The action sequences go by fast and aren’t given time to build excitement or laughs (the way that, say, Rodriguez’ hilarious segment of Four Rooms built one disaster atop another); there aren’t any set pieces that lodge in your mind, just odd, funky details like a floor that seems to fall away but doesn’t, or robotic spy kids whose eyes glow (like the kids in Village of the Damned), or Tony Shalhoub’s quiet, witty bit of business as a Floop minion (he’s even named Minion) who tries to sit in his boss’s diabolical chair but can’t quite get comfortable in it.
Rodriguez seems comfortable in his own chair, though. Though he hasn’t provided Spy Kids with any glorious moments of action-adventure excess reminiscent of past classics or even his own films, he may have begun something here. Making a film for kids, with intelligence and without condescension, can be a greater challenge than making an intense art-house drama. It’d be interesting to see what such directors as Spike Lee or Steven Soderbergh would do in the kiddie genre, now that Rodriguez has made it look cool and fun to follow his lead.