In Spy Kids, director Robert Rodriguez's inventive cloak-and-juice box thriller, you know when the spies are about to start spying because they change out of their suburban khakis and slip into tight black leather cat suits. They check the computer for trouble, only it isn't a computer, it's an armoire. They hop into the SUV, only it isn't an SUV, it's a submarine - and they aren't going on vacation either, which is what they told the kids - they're trying to save the world.
The spies are former enemies Gregorio and Ingrid, played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino (Spin City). Now married, they call themselves “consultants,” but they are actually living a double life. Their children, played by the less glamorous, more sticky kid-looking Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, are typical children, only they aren't what they seem either: Spying is in their genes, and when mom and dad get captured, they slink into action and have to save the world.
Young Carmen (Vega) and Juni Cortez (Sabara) don't just don the usual rocket packs and practice bonking villains on the head, they find their own spy clothes: long black coats with embroidered dragons on the cuffs that flutter up in the wind as they strut in slow motion - just like hit men entering a bar in a John Woo movie.
Rodriguez infuses everything with an unaffected cross-cultural feel never commented upon, only presented as a fact of American life. He has style to burn. He made a media splash in 1993 with the $7,000 (yes, three zeros) action flick El Mariachi. He moved onto a remake, Desperado, then a vampire movie, From Dusk Till Dawn. Each is a lighter-than-air B-film that moves. With Spy Kids, he uses everything he's learned, but interestingly, his aim is the same: to entertain. There's a Latino flair throughout, a Hong Kong martial arts attitude, and a lot of American consumerism.
Even the theme song, written with the late great bandleader Tito Puente and performed by Los Lobos, is imaginative, fun, and different: “Oye Como Spy.”
Usually with family movies, after you've met the tree sloth named Chester who plays basketball, you know what you're getting, just as you know better than to expect the food on your plate to look as good as the picture on the restaurant menu. They seem good in theory, but these Day-Glo flights of fantasy often turn tame once they've been homogenized, test-marketed, and run through the product-placement mill.
The worst part: Youngsters learn early on that creativity will tend to be flattened, and for them at least, the movies will always be a weaselly extension of television.
The genius of Spy Kids is that it's aware of all this without letting on - or even making a discernible point. It doesn't look good for you. But it is - for lessons of family and courage, but mostly for what it says about creativity and how a kids' movie can have a kids' sensibility. It's one of the first I've seen in ages not infused with rudimentary moral lessons. Instead, it feels as if it's being written in a kid's voice and designed by disgruntled parents who have sat through too much Barney.
The bad guy, Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), is the host of the No. 2 most popular kids' TV show in the world - and a closet fascist out to create an army of robot children.
His TV sidekicks are mutated double agents whose cheery chatter is actually “Save us!” when played backward. And his henchmen are all thumbs - literally, giant thumbs. The dreamlike pedigrees here are Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, but also, of course, James Bond.
Rodriguez, however, is all fluff and bright colors rather than cold gun steel: There are crayons that cut though metal and electroshock bumble gum and goldfish-shaped speedboats and parachutes that pop open into gigantic red hearts above bright green cliffs.
There's so much going on in Spy Kids, at such a breakneck speed, that the movie feels like the kind of unaffected stream-of-consciousness fairy tales children tell when they haven't learned yet that stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end.
So a lot of the plot doesn't make sense. The special effects are chintzy. And you get the queasy feeling that even as you sit there, toy sellers might be in the lobby hawking plastic tie-ins. Considering there's no blood or death, and that adults without children in tow would probably find Sky Kids just as absorbing, it's a small price when the payoff is a smart, fun rethinking of the kid-movie genre.