I did not see the first version of Spy Kids, released in March, and I don’t think I gained much by waiting, except that I spent a 100-degree day in an air-conditioned movie theater rather than outside. The much-heralded, newly added shark scene, the ostensible reason for the re-release, is neat, but not enough to merit an additional marketing campaign. Anyone who didn’t rush out and see it the first time can probably wait until it’s on DVD or tape, in mid-September.
In the new scene, secret agents/siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are underwater with dangerous sharks. As the sharks aren’t moving for most of the time they are on screen, there is only a little bit of tension, more goofy than scary, and the whole thing eventually degrades into a pee joke. But the scene is about more than just pee—it’s about water chemical levels and other scientific intelligence. Carmen is able to show off her chemistry smarts and avert disaster. Message: it’s a good thing the school-skipping Carmen didn’t miss that day.
For the most part, however, Spy Kids is only a little bit educational, in the teach-to-the-test sense. Not much that happens here is based on scientific information available to the not-yet-driving-age set. Most of the lessons are Disney standards, advocating family togetherness and openness, and, appropriate to this millennium, equitable distribution of household responsibility and childcare among parents. This is the Modern Family: multi-culti mom and dad (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) have dueling computer systems, and they’re hard at work at night after the kids go to bed. Their house is decorated in the Pottery Barn ethnic/eclectic manner (another name for this might be “Orderly Bohemian”). Like the furnishings, the family embodies a kind of harmless difference: exotic, but with enough Hollywood familiarity to make them—and the movie as well—charmingly offbeat rather than threateningly disturbing. Spy Kids is a little funky but not terribly original, and will never make it to a cinematic hall of fame. This does not mean, however, that it isn’t important, thanks to Mexican-American director Robert Rodriguez. In the Disney universe, it’s normal to be special, and that’s exactly the case with the Cortez family, kids and parents alike.
The Cortez family is the point at which Rodriguez and Disney fuse—something unthinkable 10 years ago in the wake of Rodriguez’ razor-sharp, low budget film El Mariachi (1992). Even more recently, after Desperado and The Faculty, both less edgy than El Mariachi (or, for that matter, than Spy Kids), using “Robert Rodriguez” and “The Wonderful World of Disney” in the same sentence just didn’t happen. But, it’s an absurd world in which we live, and Rodriguez is just the man to point this out, in any context. The everyday family in Spy Kids, despite their familiar banter, is really very special. Mom and Dad have given up the exciting intricacies of secret agent life to raise their two kids in a “normal” family, except that they are anything but “normal.” Everything is gorgeous, from the backyard of their ocean-side home, to their cheekbones.
The Cortez family members are not just vaguely “ethnic” characters for whom dialogue can be easily dubbed into other languages and their characters easily interpreted as belonging to myriad cultural backgrounds. I’m betting that for Rodriguez, the inclusion of non-Anglos is more than just a marketing tactic. These are actual Latino characters—albeit distinctly upper-class—who are neither peripheral nor criminal nor Rosie Perez. Nickelodeon has been attempting this for about a year with The Brothers Garcia, but with less commercial success than Rodriguez—without the draw of a sure-fire draw like Banderas.
The Cortez family lives somewhere in Latin America. With the exception of mom Ingrid (Carla Gugino), who is from “another country,” according to the film—but who knows, maybe she’s from Argentina or Cuba—all members of the Cortez clan have dark hair and eyes. Carmen’s full name is distinctly Spanish, and she speaks it with flawless Spanish pronunciation. The kids’ features, however, are recognizably Anglo-European, although I guess that’s what happens when mom is Gugino and dad is Antonio Banderas, and Hollywood standards still apply. Still, equating “normal” (at least for a Disney family) and “Hispanic” is quite new for mainstream film, and it is an overdue change from the likes of Hayley Mills or the fair, freckled kids from Escape To Witch Mountain (1975), (Ike Eisenmann and Disney regular Kim Richards). This cultural recognition is the kind of thing Disney can point to as public service, and I expect to see Spy Kids airing on the Disney Channel—over and over—in years to come.
This movie, however, from Disney via the formerly indie distributor Miramax, and the Miramax subsidiary Dimension, is more in line with recent Disney Channel television series like Even Stevens or So Weird, than any recent movies starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. While the “messages” are pat—family is important, secrets are dangerous—the way Spy Kids gets to them is quite entertaining. The use of “copy cat,” the game/method of torture in which one sibling infuriatingly repeats everything said by another sibling—becomes a weapon of secret agency in the hands of the often hapless Juni. The lesson: kids should be kids; they have resources, imagination, and abilities not always available to adults. Ultimately, trite as it sounds, this is a movie for kids of all ages. While Spy Kids is neither sophisticated nor classically educational, it is filled with love, family, bright colors, fun action scenes, and magical mystery. It’s thrilling to imagine a life like that of the Cortez family, and a world in which Hispanic and other not Anglo characters and actors are not marginalized. I just wouldn’t count on it actually happening outside of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, scheduled for release in 2002.