Good movies for kids are hard to make. I think they might even be harder to make than Oscar-bait. Award-winning films can span any number of plots, subjects, and conflicts, and can oftentimes get away with confusing narrative and plotholes that are looked over by people who are focusing on the cinematography, editing, or what have you. And that’s fine, in its own way. But like the emperor who strode out into the street in his new clothes, an incomprehensible film will be called out by the innocent bluntness of a child, handily revealing its metaphorical nudity. And yet, make things too simple or boring and the film will simply be forgotten, by kids and adults alike, relegated to closed Blockbuster shelves like so many straight-to-DVD Disney sequels and toy tie-in movies.
That’s why I love Spy Kids. With a first installment released in 2001, this kids’ movie franchise by Robert freakin’ Rodriguez of all people captured the imagination of myself and many of my elementary school classmates, made its way into Happy Meal toys, and, uniquely, was something that our parents didn’t mind taking us to more than once, because they enjoyed it as well. The film tells the story of the Cortez family, an ordinary Latin-American family by all counts, except for the fact that Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) Cortez, AKA Dad and Mom, are secretly retired international super-spies. When their fellow agents begin disappearing, Gregorio and Ingrid are called back into action. But the villain, a childrens’ show star by the name of Floop (Alan Cumming), has anticipated the Cortezes, and when they are captured, their children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) must step up to save their parents.
Spy Kids is a raucous adventure romp through gorgeous locations and colorful Tim Burton-esque sets. This movie is never boring to look at. While mostly shot in Austin, the film also ventures into Chile and San Antonio, proudly showing off the Latinx culture and flair that permeates the film. The score, by Danny Elfman, further emphasizes this, with that wistful and sexy Spanish classical guitar rearing its head whenever possible, rose in its metaphorical mouth, hand extended to me in an invitation to tango. And when this movie isn’t looking like a tourism video for Central America, it spends its time instead looking like a live-action Incredibles. The second half sets itself primarily within an evil lair that doubles as the set for a Pee-wee’s Playhouse-knockoff; the show is Floop’s day job and his real passion. Hidden gadgets abound, like classic Bond watches with hidden communicators, sunglasses with built-in heads-up displays, and the world’s smallest cameras. This movie bleeds style.
The opening scene illustrates the franchise’s unique, bizarre, brilliance perfectly: Gregorio and Ingrid meet for the first time in an elevator, both with an assignment to assassinate the other. What follows is a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque montage of spy moments that chronicles their romance through remote locations. Narration runs through the whole thing, but the visual storytelling is strong, and never compromises on the plot points. This scene can be viewed on mute, and you’ll still understand everything that’s going on. Gregorio and Ingrid can’t be seen together – they’re spies, after all – so they discreetly meet each other in a myriad of locations, with the proposal at a fancy cocktail party overlooking Paris. But the film never compromises on comedy, either; Ingrid’s pre-wedding jitters cause her to decapitate an ice sculpture with her bare hands. It’s all topped off by a base-jump from a gorgeous cliffside, the wedding having been attacked by military helicopters. It is simultaneously thrilling and hilarious, due to sheer absurdity.
But this is a movie for kids, after all, and here is where the film shows its ace in the hole. The kids never stop acting like kids. They’re immature, they argue with each other for petty reasons, and their sibling bickering frequently brings about further problems. It’s made abundantly clear that Gregorio and Ingrid were captured through no incompetence of their own. In fact, it seems the only reason the children are the ones to save the day is that they are uniquely qualified to do so. Juni Cortez is an avid fan of Floop’s show, and convinces him to switch sides to take on (spoilers) the movie’s real villain. Oftentimes kids’ movies will make adults incompetent to an absurd degree, begging the question “how do these people pay taxes when they’re so busy being kidnapped, beaten up, or otherwise incapacitated?” While Gregorio and Ingrid may or may not actually have to pay taxes, thanks to the covert nature of their work, here the answer is that “they do, but the bad guy was prepared for them. But he was not prepared for their children to step it up and save the day.”
There’s a great scene that highlights the “family” part of this film. The children have arrived at a safe house and, while the older Carmen eats McDonald’s (duh, these films did get Happy Meal toys, after all), Juni confides in her his insecurity that perhaps their parents will never return. This youthful fear at the absence of mother and father humanizes the characters in a way that movies with child protagonists so rarely do. “I don’t want to be a spy,” Juni seems to say. “I just want my mom and dad back.” This sentiment echoes that of all the best orphan characters in fiction, like Batman and the Baudelaires, and works precisely because it’s something everyone can understand. The theme of family is constant and consistent, right down to the appearance of Gregorio’s estranged brother Machete (yes, THAT Machete, played by Danny Trejo) and their emotional reconciliation.
This is, unfortunately, the magic ingredient that the sequels seemed to miss. Spy Kids 2 and 3 are, for lack of a better term, a little too Disney Channel for my tastes. The child characters are just a little too badass, a little too quippy, and the films write out the parents for the most part. Why would you deprive me of more Antonio Banderas? The third film, in particular, relies a little too much on now-outdated-looking CGI. Rodriguez attempted to reboot the franchise in 2011, but the release flopped, and the only remains are two seasons of an animated series dropped just last year on Netflix.
I think it’s also worth noting that the third and fourth films both rely heavily on theatrical gimmicks. Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over is one of those 2000s 3D movies that tries to shove its gimmick in your face (literally) to justify the cost, and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World actually had a limited 4D release, like a Disneyland show, with scratch-and-sniff cards. Neither of these things seemed to help the reviews.
Like boy bands, flip phones, and many other things from the 2000’s, it’s easy to forget why Spy Kids ever got popular. But the first film is uniquely creative and captured the imagination of a generation — or at least a graduating class of an elementary school — and if the attempted reboot is anything to go by, Rodriguez is not interested in letting this franchise just wither away. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing another attempt, but if Rodriguez wants to do it I think it will be important to remember what made the first movie work. I will wait in eager anticipation for Spy Kids 5, unless it tries to be, like, in the 5th dimension or something.