It figures that a director of ultraviolent genre films would be the guy to craft the best family film in years. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez he of the $7,000 film "El Mariachi" bounces back from the ashes of his miserable 1998 failure "The Faculty" with "Spy Kids" (IMDb listing). Overflowing with energy, imagination, and style, "Spy Kids" is the absolute best way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the kids, a bucket of popcorn, and a fist full of candy.
Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino) are madly in love, married to each other, caring parents, and world-class top secret spies. When Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a diabolical host of a children's television show, plans world domination by unleashing an army of robot kids to take over the world, the husband and wife spies are sent into battle, but are soon captured. Their only hope for rescue comes in the form of their two children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara). Forced into combat to save their parents, Carmen and Juni quickly learn the ways of being a spy and head off to battle the evil Floop and save the world.
Known for his lightning-quick shooting style, Robert Rodriguez comes to "Spy Kids" fully prepared to take the audience on a ride. Writing, directing, and producing the picture, Rodriguez returns to the volcanic visual style that he perfected in his 1995 masterwork "Desperado." The camera zooms and shakes, it soars and plummets. It also tells a wonderful story of kids who must believe in themselves to rescue their parents from immediate doom. Continuing a theme in all of his movies, Rodriguez literally soaks the film in Mexican culture. This gives his movie a memorable vibe that separates "Spy Kids" from the rest of the pack by choosing a different angle in the heritage of the heroes.
Though Rodriguez is known for his adult mentality to filmmaking, he really has done some of his best work with children. If anybody out there lasted to his section of the "Four Doors" anthology film, they would be treated to the highlight of the picture. A night of terror for two young kids trapped in a hotel room with nothing to do except watch TV, Rodriguez turned this simple premise into an avalanche of laughs and shocks. He's a director who respects child actors, and he never allows them to be turned into puppy-eyed, one-liner monsters.
"Spy Kids" boasts a cast of Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Teri Hatcher, Alan Cumming (though I could've done without this overrated actor), and Tony Shalhoub, but the real stars are the two kids themselves, Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega. They are magnificent in the lead roles, very natural and funny, and with the guidance of Rodriguez, the two youngsters become the best crime fighting duo since Batman and Robin.
However, half of the work is already done for them. A dreamlike world has been created by Rodriguez and production designer Cary White for the cast to play around in. It's truly original stuff to behold, from the henchman made entirely out of thumbs to the candyland set design of Floop castle. The visual effects are some of the best produced in a long time. They are never intrusive, and in a rare feat, they actually blend seamlessly into the real action. Rodriguez piles on these effects in such a way that would work against many other filmmakers. He has a real control over the synthetic elements of "Spy Kids," and the visuals that the computers give birth to are often amazing (you'll never look at a simple playground carousel the same again). Also making sure to thrill the bored children in the audience, the film showcases a truckload of James Bondian gadgets, all fully guaranteed to make your kids mutter "Cool!" in unison.
There is that icky sense of corporate mentality in the gadgets, as they do seem ready made for the toy store shelves (especially sickening is a blatant product plug for McDonalds), but Rodriguez moves things fast, never letting your mind wander too far outside the theater walls to contemplate the future hissyfits many parents will receive until they buy their kids an "Awesome 'Spy Kids' jetpack backpack."
Running on such high octane for more than 90 minutes, "Spy Kids" does run out of gas toward the climax. Any film trying to sustain a level of adrenaline this rich for so long is asking for trouble. You can feel the gaps pretty easily in "Spy Kids." This isn't really a complaint, but when the stimulation level is so high, it's no fun to come down from that.
With "See Spot Run" clones running amuck, "Spy Kids," with its innate sense of entertainment, and its glorious ability to please, comes running down like a cool drink on a hot day. Massively pleasing cinema aside, it's the first film in some time to understand that the audience will appreciate it the most. If Robert Rodriguez can go from a fantastic film about vampire strippers ("From Dusk Till Dawn") to a fantastic film featuring little kids saving the world, then I wait with bated breath for Oliver Stone to tackle "Cinderella."
Filmfodder Grade: A-