When TV Attacks
Television and movies designed for children are notoriously commercial. But what if the primary goal of Saturday morning cartoons was not to sell kids the latest Teletubbies lunchbox or Powerpuff Girls action figure? Just how ooky would it be if these shows were actually engineered by a secret U.S. government agency to keep control of international espionage activities by nefarious means? What if Tinky Winky wasn’t a plot to turn kids gay, but the new identity assigned to a secret agent who has been turned voiceless and ungainly by a dastardly mind-zapping device?
This is sort of the premise behind Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, in which two perfectly well-adjusted children, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), make the rather astounding discovery that their dull-seeming parents, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid Cortez (Carla Cugino), are in fact semi-retired world-famous super-spies on the order of James Bond, complete with wildly imaginative gadgets and demonically obsessive adversaries. This discovery is, of course, very cool, at least until the siblings also learn that their parents have been taken hostage by the bad guys and that it’s up to them—Carmen and Juni—to save the day.
This day-saving involves some minor scuffles with a well-meaning “uncle” (Cheech Marin) and some more hardcore battles with the perversely adorable, vaguely Pee-wee-esque host of Juni’s favorite tv show, Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming). This guy plans world domination via the usual evil-spy machinations, in this case, an army of robot kids modeled after those in the world’s most powerful and influential families (it’s a bit like the old Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd’s plan to conquer the universe with an army of sexy barbie and ken doll robots, only it seems smaller and slightly less campy, no mean feat, given Cumming’s presence). Floop lives and shoots his show in a big old Gaudi-curvy playhouse on a dark and mysterious island. Here he’s plainly king of his world and insulated from his kid-audience. That is, like many celebrities, he’s lost touch with the very people he once meant to entertain and represent.
Along these same thematic lines, Floop is also more than a little concerned with his ratings, a character flaw that at first makes him seem stereotypically petty, but ultimately makes him a less effective and so, more redeemable villain. Desperate to improve his numbers, he turns to Juni—who at that point is supposed to be a prisoner—and so, learns some valuable moral lessons. This is notable because the typical movie version of tv-ratings-hogs is to set them up as scum-of-the-earth types, doomed to suffer terrible fates for their greed and selfishness. Floop, however, is so spineless that Juni can redirect his energies with only a few sensible suggestions for show format and attitude adjustment. Carmen and Juni know what they want and articulate it in ways that the twisted-around tv guy just can’t quite manage. Two points for the kids.
In this and other respects—and unlike many so-called children’s films (say, See Spot Run)—Spy Kids is respectful of its young subjects and presumed audience. Carmen and Juni are independent-minded and compassionate individuals, and their interactions with one another alternate between slam-banging escapades with jet-packs and explosive bubblegum resemble those charming adventures kids have on Sesame Street. Perhaps understandably, the movie is less kind to adults: Floop’s cleverly named sidekick Minion (Tony Shaloub), the hyperbolically inept Mrs. Gradenko (Teri Hatcher, who looks more like she’s reprising her work for Radio Shack than for her Bond movie), and the overconfident head-spy-guy Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick) are underwritten, overacted, and predictable—Austin Powers has been here already. Luckily, the film mostly moves fast and highlights its many commercial-product-ready gizmos and fabuloso digital effects, rather than its mostly conventional characters and carefully spelled-out “lessons”—be nice to your siblings, believe in your parents’ good intentions, work on your communication skills, and watch out for bad spies.
Spy Kids is all fun, sometimes obnoxious, and incessantly cheerful—having your parents kidnapped is a minor inconvenience, leading to the chance to ride in a submarine that looks like a blowfish. How neat is that!? Children in the audience will likely be as entertained as they are by the more ambitious tv animations, like, for instance, Powerpuff Girls or Sponge Bob Squarepants, which put the majority of kids’ movies to shame anyway.
You might also wonder what’s at stake in concocting such a diversion for the big screen. Certainly, it’s good to have a kids’ movie that isn’t Disney-yet-again. But where is this film aiming its critique? At tv, when some of it is so obviously inspiring? At genre movies, such easy targets? or perhaps at the entertainment-military-industrial complex, so deserving of ridicule and revulsion? Or is it aiming somewhere else altogether, raising new possibilities, asking new questions of what kids’ entertainment can do? If its premise is correct, adults by definition lack (or have lost) the insight and optimism that allow kids to think outside and beyond what’s expected of them. And so, the fact that Spy Kids, made by adults after all, reinforces the usual values may be all it can do.