Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, January 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2011)

16. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

The Weinstein Brothers left Disney and Miramax with big ambitions for their new studio, the Weinstein Company. They were determined to recreate Miramax's success. However, after a few years, the studio was starting to fall on hard times. Desperate for hits, they decided to revive some of their previously popular series, resulting in “Scream 4,” “Scary Movie 5,” and a fourth “Spy Kids” movie. Robert Rodriguez was more than happy to play along, especially after inspiration struck when Jessica Alba brought her newborn baby onto the set of “Machete.” “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” would hit theaters in 2011, paired with a bizarre scratch-and-sniff “Aroma-Scope” gimmick. Much like the Weinsteins' other attempts to spin box office gold out of their dormant franchises, “Spy Kids 4” would fail to recreate the original's success.

Agent Marissa Wilson, a previously unmentioned aunt of the Cortez family, is one of the trail of Tick Tock, a time-stopping villain who has stolen O.S.S. tech. Marissa does not let the fact that she's nine months pregnant and going into labor stop her. After giving birth to their child, she retires from spying to spend more time with her family. That would be husband Wilbur, a reality TV show hosts, and her two step kids, prankster Rebecca and partially deaf Cecil. Three years later, Tick Tock reappears, teamed-up with a more dangerous villain known as the Time Keeper. He has gotten a hold of a device that is causing time to spin out of control. Soon, Rebecca and Cecil find themselves at O.S.S. headquarters, becoming new Spy Kids in a quest to save the day.

The fourth “Spy Kids” movie has two goals ahead of it. The film has to relaunch a beloved franchise. Obviously, making a new “Spy Kids” movie eight years after the third one necessitates a largely new cast. So, for about half of its run time, “All the Time in the World” revolves around new characters in new situations. This causes it to feel rather disconnected, at times, from the original trilogy. (For example, the lengthy opening action scene, revolving entirely around a Spy Adult.) Yet the kids who grew up watching the “Spy Kids” movies were old enough by 2011 to feel nostalgic for the original trilogy. So the sequel also makes sure to include plenty of throwbacks, such as reoccurring gadgets and the now adult Carmen and Juni becoming major supporting characters. The sequel definitely feels torn between doing something new and reminding viewers of what came before.

In the original “Spy Kids,” Robert Rodriguez managed to give his young heroes problems without ever making them unlikable. Juni was bullied and didn't have many friends, Carmen was skipping school and picking on her brother. Eventually, they got over it and ended up being closer than before. His attempts to create personality flaws for his new Spy Kids are less successful. You see, Rebecca is a brat. She resents her stepmom for not being her deceased mother, which is understandable. How she goes about expressing this, through whiny petulance, is less relatable. The character is also a prankster, inflicting cruel and gross practical jokes on her family members strictly because it amuses her. While Cecil has his hearing aides and a nerdy streak, he isn't as interesting or fleshed out as Juni was either.

So that first act is pretty rough, the audience stuck with two young protagonist that can't help but pale to the former “Spy Kids” heroes. Eventually, you do start to warm up to Rebecca and Cecil, once they get their call to adventure and they stop being so bratty. (Cecil's partial deafness even gives him an advantage, once or twice.) It helps that, unlike in “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” likable child performers are cast in the lead roles.  Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook have a similar quality to Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. They are both kids, with that child-like energy and looseness to them. At the same time, they know how to convincingly deliver a line, can invest their parts with personality, and seem to actually understand acting. So a kid's movie is always easier to stomach when you actually have talented kids starring in it.

Most of the well-known and beloved supporting cast from the previous “Spy Kids” movie are strangely absent this time out. Danny Trejo gets a one scene cameo without any lines. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino are conspicuous in their absence. Instead, Jessica Alba and Joel McHale fill the parts of Spy Parents. McHale does seem to be having fun, playing a dad that is well-intentioned but utterly clueless about what his wife and kids are actually up to. He even gets an inspired comedic beat to himself, when he yanks a tape apart with his teeth. Alba somehow manages to maintain her dignity, despite how broad some of this material is. And it is nice to see Vega and Sabara again. They haven't lost any of their chemistry during their eight years apart.

The original “Spy Kids” was commended for not relying too much on gross out humor, poop jokes, or other bodily functions to get easy laughs from kids. Unfortunately, this was not a lesson Rodriguez took to heart for the fourth film. “All the Time in the World” has countless fart jokes. In-between the baby and the robot dog, the film deploys quite a lot of flatulence. Later, a stuffed diaper is also used as a weapon against a henchman. This is not the only time the film weaponizes a bodily fluid. Not once or twice but three times, Cecil uses a bag of his own vomit against the bad guys. The film especially revels in this joke, giving us close-ups of the splattering puke. Aside from that, there's lot of food, slime, and gunk getting tossed around. It feels desperate, unnecessary, and mostly just nasty.

Of course, for movies hungry to appeal to young kids, there's nothing more desperate than a talking dog. Argonaut, the Wilson family pet, is actually a high-tech robot dog designed to watch out for the kids. Yes, he cracks dog-related puns. Yes, he participates in the bathroom humor, pooping bombs and peeing oil slicks. Most painfully, he even performs some kung-fu attacks in the last act. Yet, I'll admit, I didn't totally hate the robot dog. Ricky Gervais provides Argonaut's voice. His impish, British accent is a little more dry than you'd probably expect a chatty canine in a PG family flick to be. And at least he doesn't dance to a Top 40 pop song. Let's be thankful for some miracles.

I suspected that “Spy Kids 3” owed much of its box office success to its 3-D gimmick. Obviously hoping to replicate that, “Spy Kids 4” was presented in theaters in four dimensions. The movie is full of shit flying towards the camera, such as laser beams, flying vehicles, cheese doodles, nets, glow-in-the-dark boxing gloves, giant clock hands, and flying gears. It's only slightly less obnoxious about it than “Spy Kids 3,” largely because the movie isn't shot entirely on green screens. As for the 4D gimmick, this was accomplished with a scratch-and-sniff “Aroma-Scope” card given away with the purchase of the movie ticket. Even watching at home, it's obvious where this fits in. Foodstuff appears on screen and the characters make frequent references to the various scents and stenches they encounter. (This was probably a big reason why the movie has so many fart jokes.) Ultimately, both gimmicks have little to do with the movie and add nothing of substance.

Despite all of these flaws and weird decisions, “Spy Kids 4” does get points for containing some decent action sequences. There's a lot of shots of people getting tossed into the air that we've come to expect from Rodriguez. The movie seems to find the idea of children beating up adults hilarious and repeats that several times. However, there are also some kind of cool moments. The Time Keeper's henchmen convert their weapons into flying vehicles, leading to a mildly mid-air chase scene throughout the city, the kids in mini-jets of their own. Later, Rebecca and Cecil infiltrate the Time Keeper's massive clock device. This leads to the kids leaping around and avoiding giant spinning clock arms, a solid action set-piece. CGI has improved a lot since the original films, in general making these kind of theatrics a little more believable.

I have to say, the sequel also cooks up a genuinely interesting bad guy. The Time Keeper commits really hard to his theme and I can respect that. He wears a large clock as a mask. His henchman have similar “clock faces.” His secret hide-out is a watch repair shop. He traps his enemies in giant hour glasses full of “quick” sand. That's some “Batman '66” level wordplay there and I can dig it. In the last act, we learn of the villain's true identity and origins. This is a genuine surprise and I was shocked at how far Rodriguez takes this idea, involving some time travel manipulation. It results in a supervillain origin story that is novel, understandable, and even poignant. I guess what I'm saying is: Though he's stuck in a mediocre kid's flick, the Time Keeper is a genuinely decent comic book supervillain.

As cool as the Time Keeper's backstory it is, it ties into another obvious moral lesson that Rodriguez hammers into the viewer's skull. In fact, “Spy Kids 4” has two separate and obvious messages to give to kids. The first of which is that time is finite and you should appreciate your loved one's while you still can. This message is mostly aimed at parents like Wilbur, who are focusing on working with the hope that he'll have time for his kids later. The second message is that step kids should learn that their new step-moms or dads aren't so bad. While neither of these are bad things to teach kids, the lack of subtly with which “All the Time in the World” imparts this stuff is annoying... Though not horribly unexpected, considering Rodriguez has done this all before in his previous kids' movies.

Much like “Scream 4,” the original plan for “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” was that it would be launch a new trilogy. The movie ends with the O.S.S. reactivating its Spy Kids section, with Rebecca and Cecil planning on recruiting kids from all over the world into the service. (Which, in a fourth wall leaning gag that raises a lot of questions, includes kids in the audience watching the movie.) Also like “Scream 4,” the underwhelming box office kept those plans from formulating. “Spy Kids” has instead continued as an animated series, something I'm surprised didn't happen sooner. “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” is not well regarded. It currently sits among IMDb's lowest rated movies. The sequel is definitely a reboot we didn't need. While it's full of some truly lousy elements, it's also not totally worthless either. If nothing else, I'd happily re-watch it before “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” or “Spy Kids 3.” [Grade: C]

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