Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 18, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2001)

7. Spy Kids

To some people in 2001, the idea of Robert Rodriguez directing a children's movie probably seemed incredibly bizarre. Would the director of a hyper-violent shoot-em-up like “Desperado” or a flesh-and-blood filled adventure like “From Dusk Till Dawn” really be able to tone it down for kids? Of course, those that followed Rodriguez' career realized he has always had an adolescent sensibility. Rambunctious siblings featured prominently in his early short “Bedhead” as well as his “Four Rooms” segment. (Which would've been kid friendly, were it not for the profanity, stripper, and dead hooker.) Rodrigeuz would certainly prove anyone who doubted his ability to make a kid's movie wrong. “Spy Kids” would become a surprise hit in 2001, out-grossing any of the director's previous films and remains among his most popular features.

Carmen and Juni Cortez think their parents are boring. Though they live in a large home and are regaled with spy themed stories, the bickering siblings think nothing of this. Their parents worry about Carmen skipping school and Juni's lack of friends. They are also actual spies. When federal agents begin to disappear, mom and dad investigate. They are soon captured by the villain – a demented children's show host who is designing weapons for criminal elements – which endangers Carmen and Juni. Soon, the two kids have to teach themselves the tricks of their parents' trade, if they hope to rescue mom and dad and save the day.

By moving into the kid's movie genre, Robert Rodriguez is given an excuse to totally free up his zany imagination. It's no wonder why “Spy Kids” appeal so much to actual children, as the movie has a child-like creativity and energy. There are a number of imaginative tricks up the movie's sleeve. Such as an amusing gag involving puzzle piece-shaped tiles falling away from a floor. Or the production design of the villain's lair, which is colorful and fittingly warped. There's a small section of the film set in a room where the villain can make anything he images into reality, another sign of the movie's barely contained creativity. And the zaniness is equally evident, such as when a playground roundabout spins at super speed or a rocket pack assisted chase scene all throughout a city.

Another thing that allowed Rodriguez to free his imagination up to previously unseen cartoonish levels was CGI and green screen technology becoming more accessible. Just gazing at the various making-of documentaries the director has made, it's clear the novel ways he uses the technology. While “Spy Kids'” creativity can be commended, many of its special effects have aged poorly. Take a look at the villain's bizarre henchmen, creatures made entirely of thumbs. While a neat idea, the dated digital effects make the fingermen look plastic and weightless. This is especially apparent in that jet pack chase, the characters zipping through the air in a hugely unrealistic fashion.

In fact, it's fair to say “Spy Kids” maybe frees Rodriguez' cartoony tendencies a little too much. The direction is hammier than ever before. More than once, characters flip through the air in slow motion, a deeply unconvincing effect. Upon release, “Spy Kids” was celebrated by Roger Ebert and other critics for not relying on crude toilet humor, like many kid's movies. Which is a little weird, because “Spy Kids” does feature some gross-out humor. Such as an utterly gratuitous poop joke or a random gag about pig intestines. There are other hallmarks of overactive children's entertainment here, like some product placement from McDonald's. Knowing what we do about Rodriguez, it's easy to assume these more childish moments were totally his ideas.

Another thing “Spy Kids” has in common with typical kid's media is a cheesy moral. Naturally, this is a film about the value of family. Carmen and Juni bicker with each other in the beginning, as siblings are prone to do. Carmen makes fun of her brother's perceived wimpiness, while Juni threatens to reveal his sister's embarrassing secret. As you'd expect, the two learn how much they really care about each other before the end. Interestingly, for a movie technically about spies, “Spy Kids” ties this theme in with one about not keeping secrets. Mom and dad stop lying to each other, kids stop lying to their parents. The whole Cortez family exits the movie closer, with a better understanding of one another.

It's a pretty standard moral for a kid's movie. Something that is interesting about “Spy Kids'” family is how unapologetically Latino it is. Rodriguez casts most of the principal roles with actors of Spanish or Mexican descent. The Cortez family's ethnicity is never presented as anything out of the ordinary, simply as a matter of fact. There's something quietly impressive about this, a film that is so proud of its Latin characters but never treats it as unusual or strange. While “Spy Kids” appealed to children of any ethnicity, I imagine Latinx kids found special value in seeing people like them on-screen, being heroes and having adventures.

In his horror films, Robert Rodriguez has shown a tendency towards mutated bodies and gross deformities. Surprisingly, this trademark makes an unexpected appearance in “Spy Kids.” The film's primary villain, at least at first, is sinister children's show host Fegan Floop. Using his surreal technology, he can shift and bend the human body into whatever shape he desires. He uses this power to mutate the captured government agents into utterly grotesque monsters. While most of “Spy Kids'” effects are digital, Floop's freaks are created with fantastically weird practical effects. These beings look exactly like what they are: Mounds of twisted flesh, their agony clear in their still very human eyes. I'm surprised something this weird and creepy made it into an otherwise light and fluffy kid's flick.

Floop is an interesting villain for another reason. At the beginning of the film, Juni is enamored of Floop. He watches the show, collects the toys, and feels more of a kinship with Floop than any kid his own age. Floop being a madman, brutally deforming captured enemies for his own twisted pleasure, could've been a commentary on children's entertainment. How programs look to entertain kids but are actually out to corrupt their minds by selling them shit. Disappointingly, “Spy Kids” backpedals from this idea in its second half. Floop is revealed as a largely harmless eccentric, not bad but simply led astray. His main henchman assumes the role of primary villain from that point. Then again, I guess a movie with a Happy Meal tie-in probably wouldn't be the best place to make a point about the effects of capitalism on kids.

As the titular kids, Robert Rodriguez did not seek out any known child actors. Instead, he cast a pair of then-unknowns. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara are not wooden or mug overly hard, like far too many child actors do. Neither do they compensate by acting overly serious. Instead, they both act like real kids. Vega has a way with sarcastic barbs while Sabara is more aggressively goofy. Yet both kids are clearly having a ball. Moreover, they have excellent chemistry together. The two perfectly nail that sense of sibling rivalry while also making it clear they do love each other.

Yet even in his goofy kid's movie, Rodriguez brings along plenty of his favorite actors. Antonio Banderas plays Gregorio, the dad. Banderas gets to have it both ways here, getting laughs as an ordinary suburban dad while also getting to play a dashing super-spy. Sometimes in the same scene. Carla Gugino is warm, funny, and adventurous as Ingrid, the mom. Though it keeps everything PG-rated, there's no denial of the simmering sexual chemistry the Cortez' parents have. Rodrigeuz even sneaks in small parts for Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, whose antics are usually not kid appropriate. Yet Marin is fittingly funny and sweet in his brief part, while Trejo's gruffness is exploited for well-timed comedic effect.

The more villainous roles are given to recognizable faces as well. Alan Cumming is definitely well cast as the amoral man-child that is Fegan Floop. When he has to play the same part for sympathy, Cumming is clearly not as invested. Yet another reason the movie should've kept him as the main adversary. Yet it is fun to see Tony Shalhoub squeeze his typically neurotic acting style into the role of a Bondian supervillain. Robert Patrick, making his third appearance in a Rodriguez-directed or adjacent project, also has his hard-ass tendencies utilized for comedy here. Teri Hatcher also gets to ham it up as another evil hench-person.  Also, watch out for a Hollywood superstar making a cute, late-in-the-film cameo.

When “Spy Kids” came out, I was already a little older than its intended audience. If I had been born a few years earlier, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it far more. The movie's manic qualities, present in both its elastic visual approach and hurdling script, definitely grates on grown-up eyes. Within the wasteland of children's entertainment that was the early 2000s, the film really did stand-out as a shining example of excellence. Now that things are a little better in that regard, “Spy Kids'” weaknesses are more evident. Yet I do admire the movie's creativity, enjoyable cast, and the go-for-broke way it embraces that childish mindset. [Grade: B-]

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