Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodgiruez (2002)

8. Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

Grossing 147 million against a 37 million dollar budget, making it the 17th most popular movie of 2001, “Spy Kids” was a certified blockbuster. I imagine Robert Rodriguez and Miramax realized immediately that they had a potential franchise on their hands. The producers were eager to capitalize on the first film's popularity. Rodriguez, meanwhile, wanted to make more “Spy Kids” movies while his young actors were still, well, kids. “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams” was quickly rolled into production and would hit theater screens the next year. Though not quite as commercially successful as the first, I seem to recall the reviews being a little better than the first at the time.

A year after the events of the first film, Carmen and Juni Cortez have become the star agents of the OSS’ new Spy Kids division. To the point that they have rivals, in the form of the Giggle siblings. (Not coincidentally, the son and daughter of the agency’s head.) At a gala dinner, the Transmooker - a device that can disable all technology- is stolen. Stripped of their credentials, the Cortez siblings secretly head out on a mission to retrieve the device. They track it to a mysterious island off the coast of Africa, populated with strange monsters. Their parents and grandparents, as well as the Giggles, are hit on their trails.

Considering his last sequel wasn’t much more than a bigger budget remake, I’m happy to say “Spy Kids 2” rather organically builds on the original’s premise. Carmen and Juni’s journey in the first movie had them going from ordinary kids to super spies. “Island of Lost Dreams’” has their new skills and expertise being tested. Due to the effects of the Transmooker, none of their gadgets or gear work on the titular island. Instead, they must rely on their natural skills and training, a nice reworking of the gadget-loving super spy genre. (Rodriguez was even somewhat prescient here, as the spy genre would move away from flashy gadgets in the 2000s.) Beyond that, the characters are allowed to grow. Carmen and Juni bicker but they rely on each other as partners. Carmen even gets her first crush.

The zany tone of this world established, “Spy Kids 2” allows itself to become even more of a live action cartoon. The film begins at a highly farcical theme park, the rides modeled after the mascot of Rodriguez’ then-newly formed Troublemaker Studios. At the gala event, secret agents wield bizarre weapons involving flashing and spinning cords. They fly through the air with rocket boots. The villainous henchmen ride around on giant horseshoe magnets. This is not the only Looney Tunes-esque gag. After falling into a volcano, Carmen and Juni continue to fall for several hours, becoming conversational and even relaxed. Some of these gags are better than others - a reoccurring joke about overly protective secret service agents is pretty good - but Rodriguez’ willingness to stretch the elasticity of live action comedy is admirable.

The director’s commitment to child-like creativity continues to make “Spy Kids” interesting to look at. Look at the impressive production design here. The OSS headquarters is done in bright colors, yellows and blues, with big walls that are both angular and sloping. The head of the organization has an office set upon giant rising platforms, surrounded by huge computer monitors. The Cortez kids journey to the island in a submarine shaped like a dragonfly, a really neat decision. They receive their assignments in canisters shot out of huge tubes, just because it’s cool. Even the kids’ tree house is cleverly designed, with high-tech chairs folding out of the floors.

“Spy Kids 2” continues to show its director’s wildly inventive imagination. Rodriguez has always been eager to use technology to push that vision further. His love of green screen trickery was a part of the first “Spy Kids” that didn’t age well, the effects looking hugely dated sixteen years later. The sequel, despite being more elaborate, had the same effects budget. Rodriguez was simply allowed more freedom. This means the quality of the special effects vary more wildly. Some of the CGI creations look pretty good. Such as Ralph, the robotic bug that Juni uses for reconnaissance and treats as a pet. A sequence devoted to Ralph crawling around O.S.S. HQ is pretty cool. However, anytime actual human bodies interact with the CGI constructs, the seams start to show. Meaning the various flying scenes or fight sequences look very dated.

However, one element of “Spy Kids 2’s” special effects menagerie remains highly charming. The Island of Lost Dreams, it turns out, is inhabited with a number of fantastical creatures. These gene-spliced giants are walking puns: A literal horse fly, tiger shark, sheep dog. These creatures are also created with CGI. While still not very convincing, the monsters are made to intentionally resemble stop-motion effects, making their occasional janky quality part of the charm. Before too long, “Spy Kids 2” launches into a full-blown homage to Ray Harryhausen. The skeleton warrior fight from “Jason and the Argonauts” is recreated here as farce. The battle between a centaur-like “spider monkey” and a tanystropheus-like “slizard” recalls the monster-on-elephant fight in “20 Million Miles to Earth.” A giant flying pig seems right out of “Mysterious Island.” Obviously, as a classic monster fan, I’m predisposed to love this stuff. It’s not the kind of thing I expected from a kid’s movie in 2001 and it’s inclusion was delightful. To complete the homage, Rodriguez gives Harryhausen a little cameo.

The first “Spy Kids” included a decently executed moral about family. Unlike a lot of children’s entertainment, whose proclamations on the power of love and family can feel a bit insincere, you can tell Rodriguez was invested in his moral. I don’t know how true that still was in “Island of Lost Dreams.” The Cortez parents, also accompanied by Ingrid’s highly capable parents, track their kids down. There’s a lot of hugging once the family is reunited. Yet there’s not as much emotion this time and it feels slightly tacked on. The familial moral is sidetracked for a “my dad could beat up your dad” joke that is, admittedly, a decent bit of physical comedy.

The first “Spy Kids” movie was commended for featuring very little bathroom humor, during a time when children’s entertainment was especially scatological. (Though the gross-out humor that was there stuck out a lot to me.) Ultimately, Rodriguez wrote these films as if a kid made them. And, let’s be real here, kids like poop jokes. So “Spy Kids 2” does feature some minor stinky, smelly gags. There’s a gratuitous nose-picking joke. Most notably, the Giggles go shoulder-deep into a pool of camel shit. While I’m sure this stuff hit the mark for the ten-and-under crowd, I found it a little desperate.

And the film is not free of other elements desperately designed to appeal to the little ones. There’s more McDonald’s product placement, the camera lingering on the Golden Arches as soon as they pop up. Even though the whole point of the movie is that the Spy Kids are more than capable without their gadgets, when those gadgets do appear, they feel specifically designed to sell toys. Lastly, just as the end credits start to roll, we get a totally gratuitous song-and-number. Alexa Vega performs the movie’s theme song in the style of then-trendy, hyper-sexualized pop sirens. I can recall this moment playing as a stand-alone music video on the Disney Channel at the time, making it obvious which bubblegum-hungry demographic the scene was aimed at. And the song, I must stress, is not good. Mostly, this stuff bugs me because it feels like Rodriguez was capitulating to the troupes of the genre, instead of following his own muse.

The sequel can be commended for having pretty strong continuity with the first. Alan Cummings and Tony Shalhoub return for what amount to cameos, just to let the audience know they are still around. One of those creepy thumb men even put in an appearance. Cheech Marin has a similarly small role, seeming somewhat baffled by his inclusion. Mike Judge graduates from bit-player in the first movie to full blown bad guy here. He seems to enjoy hamming it up. Danny Trejo is back as Uncle Machete. The tough guy actor seems to really enjoy the chance to play a lovable, avuncular, genius inventor. (Trejo, notably, gets the sole funny moment during the music video scene.) Naturally, Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino remain utterly lovable as the somewhat goofy but 100% sincere Cortez parents.

A minor goal of “Spy Kids 2” seems to be to introduce kids to cult-favorite character actors. Most notably, Steve Buscemi has a hilarious role as the mad scientist responsible for the island’s monsters. Buscemi’s talent for twitchy comedy works just as well in a kid friendly setting. (He also gets a moment of genuine profundity that has survived as an internet meme.) Bill Paxton trots out a funny cowboy act as the owner of the beginning amusement park scene. Returning from “The Faculty,” Christopher McDonald is typically blustery as the President. The most notable of the special guest stars is Ricardo Montalb├ín as the Spy Kids’ granddad, a part that successfully cashes in on the star’s legacy of smoothness and effortless cool. Holland Taylor is also pretty funny as the grandmother.

Of course, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara are comfortable and funny in the lead roles. I definitely enjoy “Spy Kids 2” more than the original. It still has a lot of the same issues they bugged me about the first, namely its reliance on green screen technology and because I’m an old man and can only take so much manic kids stuff. However, the stop-motion-inspired monsters are a lot of fun. If this film inspired some seven year old in 2002 to check out Ray Harryhausen's movies, then it was definitely a force for good. Rodriguez’ ingenuity is obviously admirable. The cast is having a lot of fun. I would certainly prefer a hypothetical child of mine watch this over a lot of other kiddie movies. [Grade: B-]

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