Although viewers looking at the splattery violence of Robert Rodriguez's Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn might not have seen it, he has always been a filmmaker who was destined to make kids' films. His stylish, energetic characters and action and his pun-happy sense of humor both naturally segue with the best kind of children's films: those which capture the viewer's imagination. Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, Spy Kids was his first attempt at creating something for the smaller set, and it's as good as one would expect: bright, funny, and never condescending.
Rodriguez's heroes are Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), who are let in on the family secret -- Mom (Carla Gugino) and Dad (Antonio Banderas) are international spies -- when a top-secret mission goes wrong. They escape via sub to a secluded safehouse, where they discover a whole host of spy gear and enough clues to a secret plot for the duo to decide that they ought to take on the mission of rescuing their parents themselves. Helping them along the way: their fake uncle (Cheech Marin), their real uncle (Danny Trejo), and their own ingenuity and resourcefulness.
As Rodriguez notes in the special features, the key to a film like this is to pitch it directly to kids themselves. It's hard to imagine young girls and boys not responding with great enthusiasm to the cool stuff that Carmen and Juni get to do (using jetpacks, flying a miniature escape plane, riding in a sub, eating instant McDonald's), and Rodriguez supports that spirit of adventure with two well-defined characters. Other filmmakers would probably imagine a brother-sister relationship with much more bickering, emphasizing stereotypical differences between boys and girls, but Rodriguez plays it low-key. Although Carmen and Juni fight, it feels natural and unforced, and as a result, it's not sappy or manipulative when they work as a team or express their familial love for each other.
Rodriguez allows himself to have a little grown-up fun in regards to the adult characters, who are all impeccably cast. Banderas and Gugino don't get the most consistent material throughout the three movies (especially the third -- but more on that later), but they have fun with their characters. Rodriguez mainstay Danny Trejo is a highlight as Uncle Machete, whose inventions straddle the line between shoddy and brilliant; the role brings out Trejo's inherent sweetness, an underutilized part of his persona. My favorite recurring character, though, has to be Mike Judge's Agent Donnagon. Judge always seems slightly confused as to what he's doing in these movies, and yet remains game for ludicrous things, like an extended beach fight with Banderas in Spy Kids 2.
Rodriguez's penchant for casting extends to the villains. Alan Cumming plays Floop, a Willy-Wonka-eseque television personality who ends up playing a role in a scheme involving robot children. His performance is so good, it makes you wish he'd been cast in Tim Burton's remake; it's childlike in all the right ways. Spy Kids 2 offers Steve Buscemi as Romero, a scientist living in fear of his own monstrous creations. Although Buscemi doesn't seem entirely at ease with some of the visual effects, the tone of his interactions with Vega and Sabara is just right. The second film also introduces a rival team of Spy Kids in Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment), who try to beat the Spy Kids at everything. O'Leary doesn't make much of an impression, but Osment is very funny. Finally, the third film brings in heavy-hitter Sylvester Stallone, who gives a genuinely goofy performance that's 20% fearless, 30% ridiculous, and 50% costume.
The first Spy Kids is solid entertainment: action-packed, funny, sweet, and offering a good balance between the adults and the kids. The sequel is far more focused on the kids than the adults, which is fine (although Rodriguez cleverly introduces Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor as Gugino's parents), but it loses a little something with artificial CG effects, which deflate the charm of a Harryhausen-inspired skeleton swordfight and the heart of Romero's creatures. The third, sadly, is almost a complete misfire, separating Juni from Carmen for almost the entire movie, and sidelining almost all of the adult characters until the slapdash finale. Anyone who agrees with the long-standing argument that Rodriguez was better when he shot on real sets should look no further than Game Over, which is as artificial when the characters are in the "real world" as it is when they're in the movie's weak video game. The story is further weakened by the lack of the video game's concrete rules; there's never any sense that the stakes are real, and thus, the movie is a misfire. Completists might still appreciate its inclusion in this package, but it's far from essential.
Spy Kids: **** Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams: *** Spy Kids 3: Game Over: **
Spy Kids: Special Edition
Fans may be pleased to note that the version of Spy Kids included on this Blu-Ray is the 91-minute "Special Edition" version of the film. As far as I know, there's only one additional scene, of Carmen and Juni sneaking into Floop's palace underwater, while trying to avoid disturbing a crowd of sleeping sharks.
Nothing special here: the three individual covers are reduced to strips, and the back cover becomes a wall of text. The three-disc set is packed into a standard-sized Blu-Ray case with a flap tray, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
All three films in the set are offered in 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfers, with the first (shot on film) retaining its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the sequels (shot on digital) having been modified slightly to 1.78:1. That first
film looks the weakest. Although colors have some high-def punchiness, and it's free of the compression artifacts that reportedly plagued the DVD, the image just looks dated; it looks like the kind of transfer that was done at
1080p with the intention of downscaling for DVD rather than something prepared for Blu-Ray. The image struggles the most with the old-fashioned effects shots, many of which are soft enough to look like SD, and blacks crush throughout the
entire movie. Comparatively, the sequels look much better -- even more vivid colors, and remarkable fine detail, although grain seems slightly pronounced on the first sequel. However, only the third offers much in the way of
dimensionality or depth, and even then only briefly, which...well, the movie was originally in 3D, so...
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are the order of the day, and all three are pleasing across the board. These are bright, punchy films, and they're given bright, punchy soundtracks, with lots of trumpets and explosions. Although all three
films sound a little "vintage" compared to the crispness and realism of some of today's soundtracks, there's still plenty of immersiveness to be had here, in Floop's "Virtual Room" (Spy Kids), at Dinky Winks' ridiculous theme park
(Spy Kids 2), or during the virtual race sequence (Spy Kids 3). English subtitles, Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3 were both given special edition releases on DVD. With the exception of some still galleries, a set-top game or two, and the anaglyph 3D version of Spy Kids 3, everything that was included on
those discs is ported to this collection.
However, Spy Kids was only ever released by Miramax as a bare-bones DVD, and although Rodriguez even did work on a special edition (mentioned on the commentary for Spy Kids 3), it never actually reached stores. Although the
packaging doesn't point out anywhere that this Blu-Ray is a Special Edition (at least not the "Triple Feature" packaging), all of the work that was done way back when has finally made its way to home video, with some 21st century tweaks.
In addition to the extended cut of the film (see above), the centerpiece here is the "Growing Up Spy Kids" documentary (48:10, HD), which takes a look back at all three Spy Kids films. Since the entire documentary
is in standard-definition 1.33:1 except for the bits with Rodriguez, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Emily Osment, and Matt O'Leary, I have to guess most of this doc was prepped in 2004 or 2005, and the rest (post Spy Kids 4) was just
dropped in. It's a disjointed but decent look at all three films, which actually gets more mileage out of the vintage footage than the current peek at the series' stars, although the interlaced video used in the old footage is quite
distracting after awhile.
Four featurettes follow: "Robert Rodriguez Ten Minute Film School" (8:06, HD) is a decent behind-the-scenes look at the visual effects, but probably one of the least useful "film school" extras he's produced to date (the viewer can't
really apply the information that Rodriguez flew to another country to get authentic shark footage). "Cooking School" (6:04, HD), filmed at the same time as the interviews for the central doc, has Rodriguez making grilled cheese
sandwiches, while Sabara and Vega mix up smoothies. It's kind of amusing, although, again, not much for the viewer to learn: Rodriguez's sandwich technique doesn't involve anything special, other than as much butter as possible (Kraft
Singles does not a recipe make). Finally, "Stunt Piece" (6:48) and "Special Effects Piece" (7:03) are pretty self-explanatory, and round out the new extras. The only thing missing is an audio commentary from Rodriguez -- not essential, but a little disappointing given he recorded commentary tracks for the other two films.
Trailers for Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, Alpha and Omega, The Battle for Terra, and Thor: Tales of Asgard play before the main menu on all three discs. Original theatrical trailers for each of the films is included on the corresponding disc. Also worth noting there are separate Blu-Rays available with digital copies, which are not included here.
The first Spy Kids is a solid family entertainment that should entertain adults and really enchant kids, and the second is a decent follow up. The third may leave something to be desired, but this set retails at $20, which is the same price as buying the first two individually -- no reason not to get the third one for free. Although the visual upgrade is a little questionable, fans of the series will likely be pleased to finally have the extended cut and extra features for the original film. Recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.