“He’ll figure it out.” – Walter
I went into Spies in Disguise expecting to sit back and enjoy the silliness of Will Smith, Tom Holland, and Ben Mendelsohn voicing animated versions of roles they’ve essentially done before and basic spy hijinks. They are three of my favorite actors, and I was relieved to see plenty of great voice acting from them and the rest of the cast, and a good amount of laughs and well-animated action.
What I did not expect was a prominent message of nonviolence mediated through a critique of the United States’ drone use abroad. While I definitely commend Spies in Disguise for taking a risk by instilling mature ideas into a children’s spy movie, the message is bogged down by weaknesses in the story’s exposition and progression that left it feeling far shallower and more ineffective than it should have. I’m not even sure if it’s fun enough for me to recommend it if you want something that your children will love. It doesn’t really commit any specific direction enough to recommend it for any specific group. But there’s a lot to ponder about what could have been.
Spies started with an opening scene akin to Up, and it totally got me. Right when young Walter Beckett said he was making the gadgets to keep his mom safe, I wrote down “oh no, she’s totally going to die,” yet it still made me sad when we see that she passed away (albeit in a way that only adults would understand; kids are left in the dark). That actually is a problem throughout the film. In lieu of storytelling, the film relied on the adult viewer already understanding the standard trappings of spy movies and making inferences, and the child viewer just accepting what’s happening. There’s such little expository information for any of the characters, literally nothing for anyone aside from Beckett and Sterling, and even their stories felt lacking. They never even bothered to explain who Rashida Jones’ Kappel and team were, what HTUV was, or how a 15 year-old teen got a high security clearance job at a secretive agency.
This lack of any depth to the characters or the world they reside in did a serious disservice to the message the film is trying to portray. I love the idea of a movie promoting nonviolence, especially when it comes to the endless cycle of revenge, when children are inundated with violence in media. As the movie progressed, the blasé treatment of these messages felt completely incongruous with the incredible gravity of the topic at hand. For the first two acts of the movie, Killian is just an anonymous spy-movie villain; the main reason Sterling cared was because he was framed, not because of the larger threat only he knew was still out there.
It took until the third act, and only one brief scene, that Killian stated that his motivation to kill the entire agency was revenge for Sterling’s team indiscriminately murdering his people in Kyrgyzstan, obviously (to informed adults) mirroring the controversial drone strikes in the same region in real life. Almost everything else in the film maintained a clear separation from the real world, with made up agencies and gadgets/abilities. But then they dropped this giant, massively political parallel and just moved on almost as quickly.
There’s not even a brief flashback of the attack, and no other opportunity to show Killian’s growth from presumably innocent civilian to his present murderous rage, so it just kind of came and went with Sterling just offering an apology. I am certain that if you asked any preteen or younger why the bad guy was trying to hurt Sterling, they’d have no idea. Did many adults even catch it? And connect it to the irony that the villain was about to attack DC with drones in response to the country’s own indiscriminate killing? How did they manage to just casually throw that out there as a plot point? The more I think about it, the more it frustrates and confuses me.
Incredibly, this flimsy story did not make Spies fully unenjoyable. As I said earlier, watching Will Smith be a spy and Tom Holland be a nerdy underdog, even in animated form, is always fun. In terms of how funny the movie was for audiences, my theater seemed to have mixed reactions, and just like with the story, I think kids missed out on much of the comedy not because it was too adult but because many of the jokes didn’t have the usual pacing of jokes in other kids movies. Visual gags would just pop up with little pretext.
Of course, Spies also fits in the requisite potty humor, and I found it kind of funny that they could get away with more because they could say “cloaca” instead of “butt” or other body parts. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud when Will Smith’s character hatched an egg.
One last critique I have was the wasted talent on the soundtrack. Mark Ronson was actually the executive music producer and wrote multiple original tracks with tremendous talents like De La Soul and Anderson .Paak. Sadly, all of this musical talent was wasted on incredibly mediocre songs that don’t leave any impact.
In a year filled with animated sequels (and threequels, and …fourquels?), it was exciting to go to a movie expecting something more original. Spies in Disguise almost lives up to that billing. The nonviolence message gave a new twist to the spy genre, but by holding on so tight to spy-movie tropes and plot points, the message didn’t land with any power. Kids animated movies don’t need to broach such serious topics for it to leave an impact. But if you try, you need to commit. Sadly, for whatever reason, Spies did not.