It's going to come as a surprise to many people that Robert Rodriguez - the filmmaker they associate with blazing action show-stoppers like El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Faculty - has not only gone out and made a PG-rated kids movie but in the process has also raised the bar for what's cool and acceptable in the all-too-placid world of the kids film market.
The spirit and the look of Spy Kids has been frequently described as “Willy Wonka meets James Bond,” which is a pretty good handle despite its emphasis on known formulas and its failure to acknowledge what's truly innovative and creative about the project. Rodriguez has made a family movie with broad appeal to kids and adults alike, the rare kind of movie that doesn't dumb it down for the kids and won't embarrass grownups who come to see it sans familia. Kids are the stars of this movie and are treated as such: Events occur from their point of view, and they are the agents of their own rescue.
Frequent Rodriguez collaborator Antonio Banderas may be top-billed with Carla Gugino as the parents in this story, but the movie really belongs to Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, the sister-and-brother duo who set out to save their parents (and, of course, the world). And although Rodriguez elicits wonderfully natural and engaging performances from these young actors, even Vega and Sabara take a back seat to the film's wonderful array of spy gadgets, set design (courtesy of production designer Cary White and created and filmed right here in Austin), and overall focus on fun. Jetpacks shaped like kids' backpacks, a Super Guppy submarine pod that transforms into a boat, microscopic cameras, a robot army of walking thumbs, and a wild-looking mastermind named Floop (Cumming) who masquerades as a children's TV show host on a program populated by Fooglies, an indescribable band of cartoon-like creatures. The invention of all this gadgetry might make Rodriguez seem something like a James Bond's “Q,” but the activity actually seems more a reflection of Rodriguez's days as the author of the comic strip Los Hooligans and as an inveterate tinkerer who is always trying to actualize the rumblings of his fertile imagination.
Anyone who's seen the director's episode of the omnibus film Four Rooms, or any of the early short films he made in San Antonio with the acting help of his large squadron of brothers and sisters, knows that Rodriguez has always had a soft touch when it comes to directing kids. That the kid-directed focus of Spy Kids succeeds as well as it does therefore comes as no surprise. What's remarkable, however, is that Rodriguez does it without sacrificing the whirlwind pace for which his movies have become known (Spy Kids moves at a clip that suggests it's fueled by a jetpack all its own). Nods to his Latin American roots can also be seen in such things as giving the character played by Banderas the name of Gregorio Cortez (echoing the landmark 1982 film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez) and helping to pen a tune called “Oye Como Spy” (which is performed by Los Lobos).
Spy Kids might not yet tap the best of Rodriguez's creative resources, and the story definitely leaves room for more character development between the kids as well as other narrative flourishes. But there is a whole lot to be said for fun - especially fun that can be shared by all - and in this regard Spy Kids saves the day. (See Marc Savlov's interview with Rodriguez, "Like a Kid Again," March 30, 2001.
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