Bad pulls its own fat out of the fire in this kids trifle of a movie. When you find a movie that, within the first 30 minutes, can be summed up by you and your wife with these phrases; " there's so much to hate," and "yeah, this is really bad," then you know you've sold your soul to the DVD review devil for a handful of screeners you'd rather toss in your garbage disposal. But Spy School - absolutely no relation to any movie you might think of involving spies and kids - pulls it together in the final 42. Yes, this feels very much like an after-school special, and yes, it has a nauseating romantic subtext between 12-year-olds, but I can see grade-school kids wholeheartedly embracing this mostly fast-paced, entertaining adventure yarn.
Young Thomas Miller, (Forrest Landis) a remarkably self-possessed loner and snarky blowhard, has zero friends at school. He's too busy telling everyone his dad is the coach of the New York Jets, or an extreme skateboarder. Yet somehow he attracts the other school's loner, cute skate-rat Jackie Hoffman (AnnaSophia Robb). For an excruciating half-hour the two embark on a pathetic romance; she throws herself at Miller, but he's only got eyes for a British girl who's about two feet taller than everyone else. We want no part of this sickly rom-com for the tweener crowd, full of horrific music video montages and little else.
For whatever reason, Miller's school is set to host the daughter of the President of the United States, and the young lad becomes unwitting witness to a plot to kidnap the child. Trouble is, nobody believes him. As he stumbles along trying to save the day, he learns that not only should he tone down his 'crying wolf' tendencies, but that he can't trust any number of suspicious adults, including two mysterious janitors played by D.L. Hughley and Brian Posehn, plus a cool new substitute teacher played by Rider Strong. And, Miller's mom is played by Lea Thompson, plus, we get to see a girl group named Huckapoo do a cover version of The Village People's Macho Man.
Never more than slight entertainment for adults - with an icky, decidedly too-emotionally-mature love story between Miller and Hoffman, way too many music video montages, and plenty of other goofy stuff to challenge your patience - Spy School isn't something you'll be likely to watch twice. But your kids might just bond to it like glue. As a tale of outcast empowerment, it's nice this story features kids who appear not to care whether they're accepted or not, and it's a real pleasure to watch Miller stand up to bullies despite the odds. While adventure is fairly minimal, the pace never flags for the final 45 minutes, and a couple of performances really go above the call. Strong brings some weird, sleazy and unfathomable menace to his role, Roger Bart as Principal Hampton takes his tightly wound character subtly bizarre places, and Posehn (most will remember him from Just Shoot Me) clocks a few brilliant laughs in limited screen time.
Spy School really has nothing to do with spies, though it unfolds in a school setting. And Miller never uses any of the high-tech gadgets Photoshopped onto his body in the DVD cover, so don't expect anything close to a Spy Kids knockoff. My expectations were to hate this movie, however, which might be why I ended up enjoying myself more than expected. As a goofy After School Special type of affair, Spy School parlays some mild tension, a little adventure, silly laughs and adolescent wish fulfillment into something adults may enjoy one time through and youngsters with a yen for thrills might really latch on to. It's not a Hollywood-caliber film by any means, but it's a solid direct-to-video kid-flick.
Our screener comes in 1.77:1 widescreen ratio, with decent (not eye-popping, but fairly natural) colors and good levels of foreground detail. A little grain is evident, but otherwise no major compression or transfer problems will spoil your viewing. Our screener comes with an intermittent 'screening copy only' message, an annoyance, and one that leads me to warn that this copy might not reflect the quality of the retail product.
Audio, most likely Dolby Digital Stereo, is adequate, though unremarkable. Music for numerous montages is pumped up a bit higher than dialog levels, necessitating some baby-sitting of the volume control, but otherwise fidelity renders all clear and sharp.
Our screener copy comes only with an indication that Spanish Subtitles are available as an extra.
Spy School is no Spy Kids, there's really no spying going on at all, while the fanciest espionage gadgets on display are cell phones, walkie-talkies and skateboards. But as something on the level of a made-for-TV movie, it's got enough charm, kooky performances and messages of empowerment to win over the youngsters. Adults may even be surprised that, (ignoring treacley kiddie love story aspects) Spy School is fairly entertaining to sit through - at least once. Rent It for your little one and see what you think.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com