Lucky Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara). Not only does he have amazing parents, international super-spies Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino); a totally fun gig as SK2, an operative for the newly formed SpyKIDS division of the OSS; and a fantastic little insecty-looking robot named R.A.L.P.H. He also has a decent older sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega), a.k.a. SK1. When you’re 9 years old, this last is an especially big deal.
Juni and Carmen’s adventures form the center of Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams. And their perspective, part convincingly ingenuous and part movie-kid calculated, organizes the film’s general view of things: adults tend to err and children tend to save the world. This view is, of course, filtered through the irrepressible Rodriguez’s fond memory and current understanding of kidness — rollicking, enthusiastic, and not a little hyper. In this installment, it’s also filtered through high definition video, as this most inventive of filmmakers continues to seek new means to conjure his art.
As in their first excursion, Juni and Carmen sort of stumble into a case, here involving a gizmo called a Transmooker: it shuts down anything that works by electricity, which is to say, just about everything the spies (adults and children) like to use, from their vehicles to their communicators to their extra-gadgety nano-technology watches that do everything but tell time (many of these come courtesy of Uncle Machete, played again by that utterly avuncular charmer, Danny Trejo). Also as in Spy Kids, Carmen and Juni get a little help from their properly proud and concerned folks, who are in turn helped by Ingrid’s similarly supportive parents (Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor). In other words, “family” — multi-ethnic, to boot — is a prominent theme and value in this movie. No matter how independent and grown-up you want to be, it’s good when someone has your back.
There are nominal differences from the first film here (and the third film is already in production). For one thing, following their grand success against Floop’s (Alan Cummings) clone-kids, now the Cortez children have reputations to protect. At the film’s start, they find themselves bested by their nearest rivals, the Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matthew O’Leary and Emily Osment, Haley Joel’s little sister). All four are sent to rescue the U.S. President’s daughter Alexandra (Taylor Momsen), stranded on a ride — the “Juggler,” a big mechanical clown that juggles pods of people — at a theme park owned by the odious Dinky Winks (Bill Paxton). Juni saves the girl, but Gary retrieves the Transmooker, which turns out to be more important to the security guys than Alexandra.
This attitude — so low on the “family values” scale — is typical of the film’s non-Cortez adults. As it happens, the new director of OSS, Donnagan (Mike Judge, of Beavis & Butt-head fame), is also Gary and Gerti’s father. He’s ambitious and caddish, and so, of course, he’s named to the position when really, the new chief should be Gregorio (politics!). Being self-interested, Donnagan is inclined to blame Juni rather than Gary when the Transmooker is, inevitably, stolen by a crew of villainous magnet-heads: it’s probably best not to explain what this means, exactly, but the concept and effect are a lot of fun.
Removed from service and embarrassed in front of pretty blond Alexandra (on whom he’s developed a bit of a crush), Juni is despondent. Carmen comes to the rescue, hackng into the OSS computer system to reinstate him and get them assigned to a most prestigious mission. They figure, if they can retrieve the Transmooker, they can reclaim Juni’s good name, and save the planet while they’re at it. As before, they pilot a phenomenal undersea contraption (the Dragon Spy Ship) to a secret island.
There they befriend “mad” genetic scientist Romero (Steve Buscemi), very sweet but confused too, and quite afraid of his own creations, who are now, as he says, “run amok.” These are different animals spliced together, like a spider monkey, catfish, horsefly, and something called a slizzard (part lizard, part snake). Romero is so skittish that he hides from Carmen and Juni, until she sets him straight: “We’re kids, not monsters.” And honestly, his creatures look less like state-of-the-art digital effects than like they’ve descended from some great Ray Harryhausen movie heaven. Juni befriends the spider-monkey by feeding it bits of his protein snacks, then rides it into battle against Gary, who’s riding the slizzard. It’s all very Clash of the Titans.
In fact, the more crucial tension in Spy Kids 2 has to do with hormones, i.e., kids growing up. Carmen has developed a crush of her own, on the dastardly (or misguided) Gary. Juni tenaciously, if not very effectively, tries to point out Gary’s shortcomings to Carmen — the kid is deceptive, smug, mean, etc. Generous-minded as well as smitten, she sticks up for Gary as long as she can. The dynamic between Carmen and Juni, the first film’s most interesting aspect, is adjusted here, and paralleled in the relationship between Gary and the thoughtful, spunky Gerti, allowing for the kids’ evolving interests. And this may be the aspect that keeps the franchise afloat, its close attention to the ways siblings interact.
More cute diversion than thrillsville outing, Spy Kids 2, like its predecessor, cuts frequently and a little tediously between the kids’ exploits and their parents making their way to the island, breaking down momentum and hammering home that “family” theme (that said, Banderas is an endearing, self-goofing dad, obviously willing to pratfall in a most bighearted fashion). The closing credits sequence offers a glimpse of something else — Vega singing and cavorting rather like Avril Lavigne-meets-Britney Spears, with Sabara on guitar — but for the most part, the film follows formula.
This is not necessarily a terrible thing. The formula was a huge triumph once. Still, the spy kids — as characters and ideas — are so refreshing, all this plot busyness is only distracting from the series’ most profound strength and charm, which is, precisely, the kids.