Movie Guru: ‘Spies in Disguise’ is a tad dark for a kids movie, but your kids will still love it
‘Spies in Disguise’
Rated: PG for action, violence, and rude humor
Screenplay by: Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor
Directed by: Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Masi Oka, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled and more
Grade: two and a half stars out of four
Propelled by its own inventiveness and a surprising amount of detail, “Spies in Disguise” is a chaotic but fun action adventure that works best when you don’t think about it too carefully. The humor is odd but occasionally spectacular, along with plenty of scientific shenanigans and globe-trotting adventure. There’s also an odd undertone of darkness that doesn’t quite jibe with the movie’s hard-line pacifist message, leaving the movie feeling oddly unsettled. If you look past that, though, it’s far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Lance Sterling is a world-famous secret agent with a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to missions. Walter Beckett is a scientist at Sterling’s agency who is convinced there are nonviolent solutions to even the world’s scariest problems. Sterling hates Beckett, but when a frame job leaves him on the run, he has nowhere else to turn. What he doesn’t know, though, is that accepting Beckett’s help means turning into a pigeon and going on an adventure that will end up changing his life forever.
If your kids have any interest in action-adventure movies, they’ll really enjoy this one. It’s a bunch of classic action tropes turned on their heads, with some stretches of genuine tension. It’s also unexpectedly creative, with solid in-universe underpinnings for all the absurdity. No matter what its problems, I can honestly say that more thought was put into this movie than every single movie Michael Bay has ever made.
It’s also unexpectedly hilarious at times. This is true in large part to the real pigeons that try to adopt pigeon-Sterling as part of their flock, a trio of comic disasters who don’t need the ability to speak to be hilarious. My favorite of the three is Jeff, whose dry, physical humor is absurd in the best possible way, but Geraldine gets a ton of points for being my favorite romantic lead in a long time. (Yes, she’s also a pigeon.)
There is, however, a persistent undertone of darkness that includes everything from implications of terrorism to implied murder. It wouldn’t be out of place in a grown-up action movie, but here it can be quite jarring at times. The movie swears that even that level of violence can be dealt with nonviolently, but adults in the audience might end up shaking their heads.
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Sterling is a pretty solid parody of an Americanized James Bond, and you get the sense that Will Smith is fulfilling a lifelong casting fantasy with this role. He’s also something of a jerk and clearly being set up to learn some valuable life lessons. The lessons on teamwork are particularly necessary, and his chemistry with Holland ends up being quite sweet.
The whole movie doesn’t manage to be quite as sweet, but it’s exciting enough to make you forget that for a while.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.