As its title suggests, Spy Kids is an action fantasy aimed primarily at the preteen/early-teen audience. For all its thrills -- and it has plenty -- it's strictly a PG film, which is all the more surprising when you consider its source: Robert Rodriguez, master of bloody gunplay and monster films that sometimes even push the boundaries of an R rating.
Rodriguez made his reputation with the extraordinary ultralow-budget actioner El Mariachi in 1992 (reportedly -- and unbelievably -- shot for $7,000). He followed it up with a confused but thrilling sequel/remake, Desperado (1995), with at least a thousand times larger budget and Antonio Banderas to boot. His subsequent features -- From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and The Faculty (1998) -- were action-horror and straight-out horror, respectively. From this filmography, it's safe to say that Rodriguez has used more stage blood and exploding squibs per film than any director except John Woo -- maybe more than anyone since Herschell Gordon Lewis in his '60s heyday as the king of goresploitation.
This ketchup-soaked average is severely compromised with Spy Kids, which has very little shooting and no blood whatsoever. It seems that -- at the grand old age of 32 -- Rodriguez has decided to make a movie that even his own preadolescent kids could watch.
Although the chronologically more advanced Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino get top billing, the real protagonists here are the Cortez siblings -- 12-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and 8-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara) -- who live in a high-tech house on a cliff, together with their seemingly staid parents, Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino). The kids love to hear Ingrid tell their favorite bedtime story -- about two spies from different countries who fall in love and get married.
The story is, of course, autobiographical, the joke being that the kids are too levelheaded to actually believe it, and only the parents know that this outrageous fairytale is true. Gregorio and Ingrid have long since retired, for the sake of family, and set themselves up as private security consultants, but their peace is shattered when they get an urgent call from former boss Devlin (a major star in a tiny surprise cameo). It seems that various top agents are disappearing, and only the Cortezes are good enough to save them.
They leave the kids in the care of wacky old Uncle Felix (Cheech Marin), who isn't really their uncle but an old comrade-in-arms. When things predictably go awry, the Cortezes are captured, and it becomes clear that it's up to the kids to save Mom and Dad.
Rodriguez has a fine old time here: If anything, he seems more at home with Spy Kids' wild, unrestrained fantasy than he did with the more conventional The Faculty. This shouldn't be altogether surprising: He handled somewhat similar subject matter in his segment (also featuring Banderas) of the 1995 compilation film Four Rooms, stealing the film from co-contributors Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Rockwell and Alison Anders.
But, even on a deeper level, Spy Kids feels like Rodriguez through and through. If El Mariachi showed a young filmmaker, brilliantly struggling against the bounds of a tiny budget, Desperado allowed that same talent to play with more money. And what Rodriguez did was push away from realism, into the realm of the fantastic. The action scenes in Desperado, although clearly inspired by Woo, were even more dreamlike; in fact, the disparity between the stylization of these scenes and the relatively realistic screenplay was perceived by many as a failing.
That Rodriguez is basically a fantasist at heart became clearer with From Dusk to Dawn -- a film whose entire gimmick was to have the realism of a gritty crime story suddenly be shattered by incongruous supernatural elements. The second half of the story, as the main characters find themselves in a hellish bar fending off scores of ravenous vampires, allowed Rodriguez to further indulge his passion for the surreal.
With Spy Kids, he gets to go all the way into fantasy, even while softening his usual visceral direction for his main intended audience. The wild production design immediately invokes comparison to Tim Burton, but the big blobs of garish primary colors also suggest that Rodriguez has watched not only Pee-wee's Playhouse but older children's stuff such as Dr. Seuss' 1953 The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. and the weird late-'60s psychedelia of such Sid and Marty Krofft shows as H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos.
Surrounded by so much gorgeous excess, the actors can chew as much scenery as they want. Cut loose from dramatic reality, they seem to be having just as much fun as the audience. The suddenly ubiquitous Alan Cumming -- who has been able to brighten everything he's in except the irredeemable Company Man -- is alternately scary and sympathetic as Fegan Floop, the Pee-wee-esque kids'-show host who is behind much of the villainy. Directors Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Office Space) and Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) pop in for cameos. But among the rest -- including Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick and Tony Shalhoub -- special mention must be made of Danny Trejo. Trejo -- whose scarred, chiseled face and gruff voice have made him a familiar heavy throughout the '90s -- gets to play sentimental, and it's a sight to see.
Spy Kids also passes the most important test for children's films: It's funny and exciting on enough levels that adults are likely to enjoy it just as much as the rugrats they find themselves forced to chaperone. Hell, even adults who don't have kids should have a jolly time at this thoroughly entertaining movie.