Nine years ago the two greatest secret agents in the world, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), were assigned by their separate countries to eliminate each other. Instead they fell in love, married and settled down. Now retired and raising their children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), Mr. and Mrs. Cortez are tempted back into one more mission investigating the mysterious disappearance of several fellow agents. Unfortunately the duo fall into an elaborate trap set by demented kids' show host-cum-mad scientist Fenton Floop (Alan Cumming) who along with sinister sidekick Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub) hatches a plan for world conquest that involves an army of indestructible robot kids. It falls to bossy Carmen and neurotic daydreamer Juni to set their differences aside, grab some gadgets and kick a whole lot of butt to save their family along with the world.
Probably the one good thing to emerge from the justifiably forgotten Miramax-backed multi indie auteur portmanteau comedy Four Rooms (1995) was that one sequence involving two children clad in tuxedos inspired Robert Rodriguez to make Spy Kids. Few people expected much from a children's film from the wayward multi-hyphenate behind Desperado (1995) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) but against all odds the result proved not just a rip-roaring adventure flick for all ages but arguably his most completely realized and thematically nuanced film. No joke, Spy Kids spins the strongest, smartest, snappiest narrative Rodriguez has crafted to date along with his most consistently inventive action. The opening sequence alone, which details the courtship of Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, is a mini masterpiece of breakneck cinematic ingenuity and virtuoso editing.
One of the more endearing things about Rodriguez is his tenacious desire to celebrate his Latin American culture and steer its image away from the pernicious clichés peddled by mainstream Hollywood action films. Family is an integral part of Mexican culture and as such this theme runs through Spy Kids like lettering through a stick of rock. Spies keep secrets but the film sets out to teach kids that families should not. Intertwining several plot threads with surprising dexterity Spy Kids stresses togetherness, forgiveness and supporting one another no matter what are the tenets of family. Happily some buoyant wit keeps the message from growing heavy-handed. For example note the priceless moment when Rodriguez sneaks an expletive into a kids' movie! The slapstick action sequences are propelled by his trademark verve and are genuinely inventive and exciting. Also, crucially, Carmen and Juni are appealing child heroes with a believable sibling relationship that is fractious enough without growing irritating.
On a production level the colour schemes, set designs and soundtrack are also deeply Latin though reflecting a winningly surreal sensibility midway between Dr. Seuss and Sid and Marty Kroft. Floop's wild and wacky virtual realm with its day-glo mutants and clumsy Thumb minions (among the film's most memorable creations) are part of a quirky charm that sets Spy Kids apart from other cookie cutter kids' movies. Channeling Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, Alan Cumming essays an interestingly conflicted villain from whose own dilemma springs a subtle message that empathy rather than violence wins the day. This stands in stark contrast to the hypocritical mixed messages espoused by so-called family films like Home Alone (1990). The film also delivers a surprisingly sexy portrait of family life through the easygoing banter between Gregorio and Ingrid winningly portrayed by a dashing Antonio Banderas and radiant Carla Gugino. Indeed the sprightly supporting players complement the energetic comic book tone. Along with significant roles for Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo (playing his Machete character for the first time, albeit in a more family-friendly context!) there are solid comic turns from Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick and King of the Hill creator Mike Judge. Look out for brief appearance from indie auteur Richard Linklater and of course that priceless cameo from a certain A-list mega-star. Huge blockbuster success spawned the inevitable sequel: Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002).
Oh shiitake mushrooms! Definitely one of Rodriguez' best films, certainly his best kids movie though his insistence on increasingly overwrought sequels has taken a little of the shine off the generally fab original. Rather this than Home Alone - there's no sadism to the adventures here.