That was what made Spy Kids so utterly charming and winning. For all its special effects, for all its hyperdreamy imagery, it was Rodriguez's most personal film, an idealized version of the filmmaker (represented by frequent big-screen stand-in Antonio Banderas), his wife (producer Elizabeth Avellan, "played" here by Carla Gugino) and their kids (Alexa Vega as Carmen, Daryl Sabara as Juni) bonding as they saved the world from a demented though ultimately lovable Willy Wonka. So it's far more than merely disappointing that Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams lacks the charm and wit -- and humanity --of its predecessor. It's dispiriting.
The sequel, which is even more hyper and bursting-at-the-seams than Spy Kids, feels oddly cold and impersonal -- as though it's nothing more than a sequel, the second installment in a franchise rushed into production by a studio looking to make easy coin. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact: Rodriguez actually asked for less money (to do so only lowers the studio's expectations), and he garners some dozen credits here, from writer and director to composer and editor. He probably catered, too.
But the spark of a wish fulfillment has been snuffed out by Rodriguez's newfound affinity for corny computer-generated special effects, a muddled storyline and a score so bombastic that the concoction doesn't engage so much as enrage. Spy Kids 2 is a numbing hybrid, a cartoon populated by the flesh-and-bloodless. Characters who were so appealing the first time around are now reduced to footnotes, made bit players to gaudy two-bit effects provided by Dallas-based Reel FX. But it has become wearying watching actors react to things that aren't even there. How do we connect when the actors onscreen aren't even looking each other in the eye?
Rather than being part of the action, integrated into the whole, the effects -- an amusement-park ride that vomits green goo, for instance, or a dragonfly submarine that looks as though it were lifted from an old Activision 2 game -- so disengage and distract that you can't tell where to look, except at the back of your own eyelids for relief. This is less a movie than a demo reel ... from 1999. Rodriguez's earliest films, among them Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, were exhausting indulgences in bloodlust. They had no heart, only pieces of brain scattered about the room. Spy Kids was Rodriguez's first complete success, a fleshing-out of the director's short in Four Rooms, and he works wonderfully with children (and for that, children adored him). Juni and Carmen Cortez were as wide-eyed and giddy as any children who discover their parents are actually spies. But here, as they're sent on to a remote island to recover a metallic doughnut with the capability of shutting down power worldwide (or something -- it's never clear), the actors seem bored and uncomfortable -- weary veterans at the age of twelve. And Banderas and Gugino barely register: Their life of adventure has been reduced to dull routine, and their occasional appearances (they act as though in a different film altogether) further stagnate a lifeless movie.
Rodriguez invited Ricardo Montalban to play Gugino's father, but the casting never transcends being a goodwill gesture (the 81-year-old actor has been largely absent from the screen since his 1993 spinal-cord surgery to repair an old injury). It's simply frustrating to see this man, who began his film career dancing with Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, stranded in a phony-looking flying wheelchair spouting the dull gripes of a father-in-law. That Khan now needs a cane is one of life's sad inevitabilities; that Rodriguez would hire so enormous a figure -- even at 81, he's still a commanding presence -- and render him insignificant is merely sad.
Treated no more fairly are Rodriguez favorites Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, both wasted during their scant seconds of screen time; Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge as a neutered bad guy; and Steve Buscemi, (as always) cast as a maniac (scientist Dr. Romero, more like Dr. Moreau) who's populated an island with freaky animal mutations -- a fish with a cat's head (catfish -- get it?), or a spider with a monkey's torso (spider monkey!) -- on loan from a Ray Harryhausen production.
One begins to wonder whether Rodriguez is capable of more than a handful of ideas. His next film is Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a sequel to Desperado (itself a follow-up-cum-remake of his better and far cheaper El Mariachi), followed most likely by an already greenlit Spy Kids 3. Rodriguez is the gourmet chef who spends his time throwing fries in the grease, which makes sense: Spy Kids 2 is but a supersized version of its predecessor, and indulging in too much only leaves you with a stomachache.