In Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the third Spy Kids film in as many years, Robert Rodriguez continues to synthesize his influences with a sort of mad genius. The previous chapters incorporated elements of James Bond, Mission: Impossible, The Wizard of Oz, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Ray Harryhausen, Sesame Street, Willy Wonka, domestic sitcoms and Mr. Wizard in a pastiche both familiar and weirdly original. Spy Kids 3-D adds to this mix generous helpings of Tron, The Matrix, and film noir.
It’s an effective, affectionate strategy. Much of this will be new to younger audience members, while teasing parents (or even older children) with subtle reminders of their childhood pleasures. It’s even, as the title enthusiastically reminds us, in its bygone 3-D matinee format, another one of Rodriguez’s tips of the hat to B-movies of yore.
Indeed, he has many hats to choose from. Rodriguez not only directed SK3-D, but served as writer, producer, editor, and photographer. He also composed the score. Essentially, he did everything but personally sire the child actors. His multiple duties have allowed the films to be produced quickly and cheaply but have also given him room to freely indulge his imagination.
Of course, a speedy production is necessary here for other reasons. Despite the relatively short time between sequels, stars Daryl Sabara (younger brother Juni) and Alexa Vega (older sister Carmen) are growing up quickly; you get the impression SK3-D was completed just in the nick of time, before full-blown adolescence could rear its cynical head.
Even so, Carmen is still largely absent from this adventure, waiting to be rescued by Juni, who retired from spying at the end of the second film. Juni is called out of retirement to save Carmen, who is trapped in a virtual reality video game named “Game Over.” Juni and his grandfather (Ricardo Montalban!) must venture into this 3-D universe, which is presided over by the mysterious Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone). According to the Toymaker’s plans, the game will enslave the world’s children; when players get caught up in playing, they are forever lost in the videogame (the knowing laughs from parents in the audience at this plot point are almost more amusing than the joke itself).
If my excitement about Montalban and Stallone seems misplaced, you need only to witness SK3-D, which magically allows two ex-icons to have cool adventures again. Stallone gets to ham it up, conversing with the Toymaker’s multiple personalities (all played, broadly, by Stallone), which aren’t quite explained by the hurried story. It’s not even that Stallone’s villainous turn is particularly skillful so much as he actually looks like he’s having a good time for the first time in a few decades.
Montalban, audibly savoring his goofy dialogue, is even better, playing the physically disabled grandfather (able to walk again within the videogame, natch) with equal parts dignity and panache. A late scene in which he expresses his hope that Juni will continue to look at him with admiration in the real world is genuinely touching, while (gasp!) imparting a lesson to its young audience about tolerance and physical differences.
Apart from Grandfather, whose appearances are sporadic, Juni is the only returning character with a lot of screentime, and so Daryl Sabara must carry a lot of the movie himself. Luckily, he does this well. Juni has become the heart of the series, the center of its on going growing-up metaphor. In the first film, the children are introduced to spying through their parents; in the second, they have their own adventure, with the parents in supporting roles; and in SK3-D, Juni is on his own, interacting mostly with other kids. Given the solo nature of Juni’s adventure, his reunion with loved ones at film’s end is entirely charming. The many characters sweetly reiterate the films’ original mission statement: family, in all its forms, is most important. It’s to Rodriguez’s credit that this statement is made while the clan is fighting giant robots.
Still, despite its family politics, I found myself missing the easy sibling chemistry between Carmen and Juni that drove the first two films. Furthermore, while former supporting players Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Steve Buscemi, Alan Cumming, Bill Paxton, Tony Shaloub and Mike Judge all have fun cameos, none of the new characters (primarily a trio of young players trapped in the game) are as memorable as Buscemi’s mad scientist or Cumming’s TV star. Perpetual Rodriguez muse Salma Hayek is also on hand but doesn’t have much to do.
It’s not as if Rodriguez needs a gaggle of adult celebrities to entertain, but the movie as a whole is spread a little thin. Spy Kids 2 was joyously overstuffed; SK3-D, fun as it is (and this adult found it a lot more fun than recent sequels like Bad Boys II and Terminator 3), demonstrates a little end-of-series fatigue.
Filling the gaps in character and story are the 3-D effects. Despite some nominal advances in the technology, the 3-D stuff offers more retro charm than big wows. Still, you get the feeling Rodriguez used the rickety 3-D format more out of love than to cash in on a “new” gimmick. It’s a shame that the movie is a little rickety, too. Even so, an imperfect Spy Kids film is much better than most of this summer’s fare.