Directed by: Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Premise: An animated film. A superspy (voice of Will Smith) is framed as a traitor and goes on the run with an inventor (voice of Tom Holland) who is interested in making non-lethal weapons. One of his inventions transforms the spy into a pigeon.
What Works: Spies in Disguise comes from Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox, who had previously released animated features like Rio and Horton Hears a Who! and the Ice Age series. These movies are diversionary family entertainment that is just good enough to play in theaters but primarily exists as content for streaming services and cable television. The filmmakers of Spies in Disguise know their audience and they cater to it. The picture keeps moving from one set piece to the next, rarely letting up, and even though the action and the comedy are never better than average there is enough here to hold the viewer’s attention. The moviemakers match the characters with the voice cast very well, especially Will Smith as the super cool spy, Tom Holland as a wide-eyed young inventor, and Ben Mendelsohn as the villain. The story is predictable but satisfying. The spy is accused of betraying his agency and needs the help of a nerdy inventor to clear his name. The two of them learn to work together and each character is given enough of a backstory to flesh them out.
What Doesn’t: Blue Sky Studios’ animated features are not renowned for their craftsmanship. They are not Pixar or DreamWorks or Laika and they aren’t trying to be. But the quality of the animation in Spies in Disguise is very low. The character design frequently looks awkward, especially the spy voiced by Will Smith. The proportions of his body and facial features look cartoonish and ugly. The cartoony look of Spies in Disguise often conflicts with what’s happening on screen. Unlike Despicable Me and The Incredibles which reconciled serious stakes, cartoonish wackiness, and emotional honesty, the tone of Spies in Disguise is all over the place. The villain is intent on murdering a whole lot of people with killer drones but the movie’s cartoonish visual style contravenes the seriousness of the threat. The filmmakers admirably attempt to wrestle with the consequences of violence and the roots of terrorism—heavy material for a kid’s film—but then follow these serious moments with a stupid joke, usually involving birds. The pigeon subplot comes across as an unnecessary add-on; Spies in Disguise often feels like two scripts mashed together and neither is done very well. The transformation plot comes across as an aside while the espionage story includes serious ideas without actually dealing with them. Spies in Disguise endorses non-violent or at least non-lethal means of dealing with terrorism and while the movie is well intended it trivializes the subject. This film doesn’t give its youngest viewers much credit and frequently talks down to its audience.
Bottom Line: Spies in Disguise is not intended to be anything other than a light diversion and the filmmakers accomplish that. But this is not a very good diversion. It’s the big screen equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon that will occupy young viewers for a couple of hours.
Episode: #784 (January 12, 2020)