Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Directors: Troy Quane, Nick Bruno
Writers: Brad Copeland, Lloyd Taylor
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Genre: Comedy, Animation, Action, Adventure
Let’s just say that Christmas could have been better last year. Why does a movie with such big talent feel so small?
Violence/Scary Images: Lots of action sequences and weapons-based violence between Lance and his targets. A frightening villain plans to kill all agents. People are shot at, captured, knocked unconscious; some life-or-death scenes in which it looks like all is (almost) lost. Physical comedy.
Language/Crude Humor: A number of awkward references to the cloaca made in jest.
Sexual Content: Lots of flirting from Walter’s pet pigeon, Lovey, to Lance (in pigeon form). She keeps fluffing up her feathers and sidling up to him; he responds by pushing her away or saying “Not now, girl.” Nonsexual nudity: Kimura’s naked backside is visible and shown for a while when he emerges from the bath. Lance looks down into his pants as he starts shrinking into a bird and shrieks.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Gangsters shown drinking.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Unbalanced glorification of sentimentality in the face of evil and danger.
Positive Content: Viewers will learn a lot about pigeon anatomy and physiology (like the fact that the birds have 360-degree vision and have a single orifice, called the cloaca, for doing “number one and number two”).
Promotes nonviolent (or at least nonlethal) means of negotiating and stopping criminals. Also focuses on the need for teamwork and accepting that others’ skills and talents can help—not hurt—you. Walter and Lance’s growing partnership shows that co-workers and friends don’t need to be alike to get along or work well together.
Lance is brash, arrogant, and quick to get rid of opponents, but learns to be more cautious, thoughtful of others, while trying to stop the villain from hurting anyone. Walter is kind, courageous, and concerned with helping.
One of the lessons I had to learn the hard way while majoring in animation is the principle of scale and scope in storytelling. Certain ideas only work for particular formats and lengths, and one should be careful to cater the idea to the arrangement in question. I’ve been saying for some time now that you can make a great movie out of anything, but what you’re using as a base ingredient must at least be compatible with the infrastructure of the whole production.
It is very possible to take an idea originally intended for a small and humble release and expand upon it to justify a feature production, for instance. One of my all-time favorite films is 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, which managed to weave a quietly brilliant and intoxicating feature-length drama out of a 40-page children’s book, with long stretches of no written dialogue, several unnamed characters, and hardly any “plot” to speak of. Spies in Disguise, the directorial debut for Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, attempts to fashion a palatable offering that justifies a theater ticket purchase from an animated short film affectionately titled “Pigeon Impossible”, also released in 2009.
The short from the days of yore was a largely inconsequential bit of silent slapstick comedy centered on an ostensible super spy’s screwball encounter with a hungry pigeon. The animated film, written by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, is focused on the world-saving exploits of a different sort of super spy and his zany adventure with being turned into a pigeon. Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest spy, and he does everything he can to make sure everyone knows it. This does somewhat undermine his title, though. One of his earliest one-liners is that an easy way to know if you’re the best spy is that “everyone knows your name”. I’m no authority on espionage, but I have a nagging suspicion that how well-known people are by name is inversely proportional to how effective they are as spies.
There seems to be an unwanted interloper in Sterling’s escapades. As he’s busy showing up Japanese yakuza with panache and foiling a plot for world terrorism, he finds one of his escape devices replaced by one that explodes with room-filling clouds of glitter and images of mewling kittens. It’s surprisingly effective in distracting the ne’er-do-wells with good subconscious feelings of bliss, but Sterling is still rather miffed that someone is tampering with his equipment.
The culprit is Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a floppy-haired, saucer-eyed engineering prodigy with a backstory that actually makes for the film’s prologue. Walter is a bit of an outcast at the organization where he and Sterling work. Since he’s the youngest carbon-based lifeform in the building, not much is expected of him. Since he graduated MIT as a teenager, he has a lot of potential that will go on untapped by his superiors.
The main element in Beckett’s character that drives both his development and the plot isn’t so much his scientific prowess, but his rather pacifist attitude towards fighting crime. He’s developed a bit of a hovel of “soft weapons development” at H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity and Valor), which include such innovations as an inflatable body shield, and bubbles capable of containing and dispelling ballistic projectiles and explosions. This is in stark contrast to Sterling’s more traditional methods of utilizing weapons that hit back and hit hard.
The writing in Spies in Disguise is arguably its weakest feature in just about every way. The jokes are occasionally funny and some dialogue does effectively define the characters and the stakes of the situation, but so much reads as incredibly rote and homogenized. It feels like every animated film from 2000 to 2009 was distilled into a disposable juice box with little to no refinement or memorable flavor to any of it. The dialogue shared by Holland’s Beckett and Smith’s Sterling could easily have come from scores of other characters seen on both the big and the small screen.
As far as what makes up the brunt of the dialogue between our two heroes, it’s one that offers a largely one-sided view of Beckett’s sentimentality that is never shown to be in error. The catalyst for these two unlikely partners crossing paths is Sterling being wrongfully accused of treachery and turning to Beckett for aid because of Beckett’s suggestion that he might be able to “turn people invisible”. What happens instead, through slapstick serendipity, is Lance Sterling the man being transformed into Lance Sterling the pigeon.
In this, the movie has not only delivered upon the promise of the trailers and teasers, but has also shown its true colors as a retread of a strain of animated family films from which I’d hope we’d move past some time ago: the CGI-animated family film with clandestinely dirty jokes, talking animals, and famous people doing the voices (also known as “Shrek Soup” in my personal lexicon). I should be kind since this is the first outing for these directors, but there’s little excuse for the horrible waste of talent here.
Rashida Jones, who made a stellar turn as the exasperated would-be schoolteacher, Alva, in Netflix’s Klaus, is here cast as Marcy Kappel, a no-nonsense security agent who spends the movie in hot pursuit of Sterling, believing him to be a traitor. She’s accompanied by Karen Gillan as the optical specialist Eyes, and hip hop artist DJ Khaled as the communications expert Ears. Add Ben Mendelsohn as the cyborg villain, Killian (who reads at times like an ill-fated attempt at cosplaying Inspector Gadget’s Dr. Claw), and it almost seems like someone behind the scenes intended another MCU entry in the shadows of this production.
I walked out of this viewing with a lot of dissatisfaction about a few things, but probably the heart of it all was how ridiculously single-minded it was in the thematic development of its two leads. Beckett was raised with the idea that everyone deserves a second chance and that there are “no good guys or bad guys, just people”. So his conviction is that more non-lethal and diplomatic methods should be adopted for Sterling’s mission. Sterling offers no real effective counter to this except to say that the more violent and dangerous method is just how he does things. I wasn’t expecting these two to get into the same impassioned shouting match that Matthew Murdoch and Frank Castle had in the second season of the Netflix Daredevil program, but I was expecting something along the lines of what the studio—in whose footsteps these filmmakers are clearly following—did some years ago with a similarly floppy-haired, nasally-voiced engineer with a commitment to non-violent protest and peacemaking.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 might have lacked a lot of the novelty and clarity of direction that its initial predecessor demonstrated, but it can’t be said that it failed in regard to character development. Main character, Hiccup, was a man given to constantly seeing the best in everyone, even in his worst enemies. It was certainly a respectable position to hold, but the writers were daring enough to throw this kind-hearted optimist into the fiery crucible of conflict, in which the diplomatic method was not always so effective, and there are those unfortunate times when he’ll have to knuckle down, cowboy up, and draw blood. It was a hard lesson that cost him and his people a great deal.
Unfortunately, the screenwriters for Spies in Disguise have no interest in embellishing their bare-bones spy comedy with anything so weighty. Beckett is essentially vindicated in every way possible. Nearly all of his “cruelty-free” inventions work exactly as he intended (sometimes even better), but all these successes are deeply couched in thick layers of cartoon exaggeration and implausibility. If the writers mean for us to take Beckett’s position seriously, it would have behooved them to ensure that the manifestation of how right he is be more credible than scenes of battle-hardened terrorists and their revenge-driven figurehead being reduced to dumbfounded ecstasy by the sight of glitter and cats.
I would be remiss to leave the impression that there was nothing to enjoy here. Beckett makes a point to educate Sterling in his newfound avian nature by referencing the fact that pigeons are mostly social creatures that depend on their flocks for survival. This gave the writers the go-ahead to introduce other pigeon characters (ones that DON’T speak in human tongue, thankfully) to both address Sterling’s pathological tendency of stubbornly “working alone” and provide entertaining comical side characters to the viewers. One is Beckett’s own pet female pigeon, Lovey, who wastes no time in making as many moves as she can on the newly transformed Sterling—though a late second-act reveal paints that whole bit in a potentially very uncomfortable light. Others include a duo of stray pigeons (one of whom is named Jeff) that inadvertently make themselves useful by following the right paths and swallowing the right things needed for the operation at hand.
Having said that, I’m compelled to bring up another thought I had upon exiting the theater: how exactly are we back here again? After seeing Sony rock the world just a year ago with Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and seeing Netflix knock it out of the park with Klaus, how exactly have we, like the proverbial dog returning to its own vomit, gone back to dipping from the “Shrek Soup” pool again? I suppose that at this time, after so many widely loved franchises, studios have either reached a closing point, or a lull in their journey, or crippled themselves with ill-conceived acts of cynicism and ignorance, devolving to a more base form was sadly to be expected.
Suffice it to say, a hacky 007 spoof flick starring a kid who played Spider-Man just doesn’t ring as true or as strong as the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made. Seeing as it seems unlikely that this film will break even at the box office, this fallout will hopefully provide an incentive to 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios to actively seek development of more rewarding viewing selections in the future. At the very least, it should deter them from repeating another wasteful dud like this.
The Bottom Line
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