While it’s unlikely to make anyone’s top 10 list for best animated feature, Blue Sky Studios – the gang behind the exceedingly popular Ice Age franchise – Spies in Disguise is a fair-to-middling example of a movie that knows its core demographic and rarely bothers to aim higher than, oh, 4 foot, 4 inches. Parents are safe to assume there’s nary an offensive or even slightly edgy feather to be ruffled onscreen. Indeed, it’s safe to nod off and let the kiddos get their yuks off while resting assured that the pointedly PC pacifist message of the film – killer spycraft is bad, drone collateral damage only creates more enemies, and fighting fire with fire leaves everybody involved in the burn ward – is reassuringly evinced throughout the film’s frankly overlong 90-minutes-plus running time.
Lightly based on Austin animator Lucas Martell's short "Pigeon: Impossible," in a sweet-natured opening, this junior spy romp introduces 10-year-old budding Q (of James Bond fame) Walter Beckett (current Spider-Man Holland) and his police officer mom (Brosnahan). That's unavoidably followed by that age-old animation statute – loss of parent or guardian figure – albeit in a completely offscreen, barely mentioned sort of way. Fourteen years later, Walter’s busy putting his scientific skills to work for the betterment of mankind, although his bosses at the NSA-style facility deem his blood-and-gore-free gizmos little but “weirdo” gimcrackery. Meanwhile, world’s greatest and smuggest spy Lance Sterling (Smith, in full-on smoove mode) runs afoul of terrorist bad-guy Killian (Mendelsohn) and – curses! – finds both his reputation and career foiled from afar. In a plot twist too complicated to explain, one of Walter’s experiments in quantum-molecular-disestablishmentarianism results in Sterling being taken down a notch and turned into a talking pigeon. I know, I know, but no one’s going to accuse Spies in Disguise of being Pixar-quality storytelling. Suffice it to say that by the end of the film everyone has learned a lesson or two about the osmotic relationship between good guys and bad guys, not to mention the proper terminology for how birds go No. 1 and No. 2 simultaneously.
There’s nothing to fault animation-wise – Blue Sky’s penchant for migraine and/or dopamine-inducing color palettes and headlong pacing are consistently above par – but, for adults at least, the film’s mushy mediocrity can be a real drag. Spies in Disguise strives for a higher moral and ethical lesson plan than it actually delivers. If Mom and Dad have seen virtually any iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “bad guy versus good guy because one of them did something nasty to the other’s family, friends, or (in the case of non-MCU badass John Wick) dog," then they’ll know pretty much everything in advance. The kiddie-aged audience I caught this with seemed plenty satisfied, but then fidget spinners are pretty cool, too. Is there such at thing as offensively inoffensive? If not, well, there is now.
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