Ol’ rebel filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and badly twisted Antonio Banderas have ended up with a film that is très hollywoodien, under the aegis of Harvey & Bob Weinstein, no less. Looks like somebody grew up and had kids. Looks like somebody wanted their kids to be able to see this movie, upon release.

In short, Spy Kids is about two kids, offspring of former spies, who must save their parents, the now boring wimpy SUV-driving Gregorio and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) from some bad guys.

While suspenseful, at no point is it scary; at no point is the viewer worried about the outcome. What’s more, it is packed with cool gadgets and machines, tricks of the spy trade interesting to adults and fascinating for kids. In addition to writing and directing, Rodriguez’s name is all over the credits–he apparently had a lot to do with the special effects.

There were two striking features to this film. One is the child actors, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. Simply put, they were excellent. Put another way, they did not suck, they did not come off as kids being told how to act, they were not cloying or irritating. Vega in particular was remarkable.

The other interesting point was the Hispanic aspect. Vega and Sabara seem to be playing actual Hispanic children (which they clearly must be, with Banderas as their father). Of note is Carmen’s excellent pronunciation of her full name (Carmen Elizabeth Juanita something Cortez). Their names are Carmen and Juni (a nickname which was never explained).

Somehow refreshing was the fact the Rodriguez saw no need to explain every last little thing. We never know what Juni’s given name is. We never know why Gregorio and his brother were estranged–in fact, Gregorio and Isidro both admit they’ve forgotten why. No reference is made to Banderas’ ultra-cheesy, Rhett Butler-style moustache.

Somewhat curious were the wildly inconsistent special effects. It is as though Rodriguez made up two teams and split the special effects between them. One team came up with some kick-ass effects, including sleeping sharks and a zippy little airplane. The other team came up with a painted plywood door to the “Virtual Room” (locus of import in the bad guy’s castle) and in the scientist’s lab we see little plastic suction cups and a small brain that I’m certain was just a painted walnut.. These inconsistencies are perplexing, but not unwelcome, as they made me feel smart for noticing them.

Filmed on location in Austin TX, there was a refreshingly ambiguous feel to the entire film. Throughout the movie there is a Southwestern feel, and frequently there are signs in the background in Spanish. I’m sure when it plays in Latin America it will translate nicely, that is, it won’t come off as flagrantly American.

Banderas, long-time muse of the great Pedro Almodóvar and a huge star in Spain for years, has had some fascinating roles. In his first film he played a gay terrorist in the campy comedy/melodrama Laberinto de pasiones, and in La ley de deseo, played a darkly gorgeous violent gay man who dates a transsexual named Tina. Banderas probably first became known on a more global scale with Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, in which he once again looks like a dreamboat while playing the role of a twisted, anguished man. Things change, actors get “mature roles”.

It was fun to identify some of the supporting actors that appeared. Patrick Robert, better known as agent Doggett on The X-Files, played one of the bad guys. Cheech Marin plays the friendly agent posing as an uncle. Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, and Office Space fame has a smallish role.

Director Robert Rodriguez’s first film, made nine years ago, was El Mariachi, an action/thriller involving a guitar player mistaken for a killer by a druglord with a bone to pick. A fine film, even more so because it only cost Rodriguez $7,000 to make. Having kids as protagonists is nothing new for Rodriguez–in a pre-El Mariachi short called Bedhead, a little girl named Rebecca winds up with psychic powers after her brother Bedhead trips her because she was coming after him for ruining her doll. By the way, the children in Bedhead are Rodriguez’s siblings, and he made this short for a mere $800 (probably didn’t pay the sibs). If Rodriguez and Banderas want to make films their children can see while still children, that’s okay by me.

I have no kids, but I did see it with my frequent movie-going friends, Michelle and her daughter Jessica. Jessica is in seventh grade, so we’re always careful to choose movies appropriate for kids and grownups. The last film we saw together was Chocolat. Like Chocolat, Spy Kids has kids as main characters, no sex or violence to speak of, and eye-catching sets and scenery. Chocolat had cool French architecture, clothing and general Euro feel, whereas Spy Kids has zillions of gadgets, a funky house for the Spy family and zany quirky castle for the bad guys.

However, Chocolat did star both Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, as well as loads of chocolate, so that’s hard to top. Drool-inspiring. That reminds me (the drool, that is) of Homer Simpson, which reminds me that Danny Elfman, who wrote the Simpsonses theme, did the music for Spy Kids.

A movie like Spy Kids really isn’t my cup of tea, so I would never have seen it on my own. I have to admit I enjoyed it… hell, I’ll even admit I laughed more than Jessica did. Good thing I had Jessica around as an excuse to go see it.
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