Spies in Disguise

SPIES IN DISGUISE. Voices of Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn. Directed by Troy Quane, Nick Bruno. 102 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and animated violence).

A playful, frothy send-up of the spy genre squarely aimed at kids (but populated with enough decent slapstick and charming voicework to appease accompanying adults), ‘Spies in Disguise’ easily overcomes its inaccurate and unappealing title to earn a recommendation for families seeking some light entertainment over the summer break.

The film’s hero, Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith), is the world’s greatest spy. He’s confident, even arrogant, but he also walks the walk, achieving results that no other agent can, even when doing so means ignoring the direct orders of his agency’s director (Reba McEntire). In the field, Sterling is equipped with an array of destructive gadgets, courtesy of the boffins hard at work back at HQ. Everyone has a unified idea of what these gizmos need to do (namely, blow stuff up or incapacitate the bad guys) bar one: socially awkward wunderkind/weirdo Walter (Tom Holland), who’d rather equip field operatives with non-lethal technology.

After he is accused by internal affairs agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) of stealing a weaponised drone, Sterling goes on the run to clear his name. His other preferences exhausted, Sterling turns to the last person that those hot on his tail would expect: Walter. Unwittingly volunteering for Walter’s latest innovation, which he has dubbed “biodynamic concealment”, Sterling is transformed into a pigeon. Cue international hijinks and some great bird-based slapstick, as the birdified Sterling and still-human Walter journey from Mexico to Italy to a weapons facility in the North Sea in their efforts to clear Sterling’s name. The lively and inventive set pieces make full use of Sterling’s avian form and Walter’s collection of zany contraptions, like the “kitty glitter”, a non-lethal projectile that discharges a large, glitter-and-kittens-based projection to temporarily distract combatants.

Though Walter gets to sail through his globetrotting adventure resolutely unchanged, Sterling bears the impacts of the (by-now compulsory in children’s entertainment) lessons concealed in Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor’s screenplay. Not only must he learn the value of teamwork (or should that be flockwork?), but Sterling must also grapple with the careless destruction that his world-saving methods have wreaked throughout previous missions. This latter struggle is embodied by the villain, Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, continuing his total annexation of Hollywood villainy), a terrorist whose antagonistic history with Sterling left him with significant injuries, since repaired with powerful cybernetic upgrades. Killian’s thirst for revenge against Sterling and his agency, coupled with the grab bag of abilities granted to him by his technological implants, make him a worthy foe in Sterling’s race against the clock to save the day. It’s a good thing that pigeons can fly at over 90 miles per hour…

Other than the general predictability of the plot (granted, it’s only the rare family film that skirts this criticism), the only real mark against the feature is its regular needle-dropping of oddly lifeless pop songs courtesy of executive music producer, Mark Ronson. Presumably hoping to emulate the breakout success of the soundtracks of fellow animated hits ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘Trolls’ (executive produced by Pharrell and Justin Timberlake respectively), ‘Spies’ features half a dozen songs that haphazardly start at random moments during montages or action scenes. In addition to being generally unmemorable, you also get the impression that they were only completed late in the making of the feature, because they rarely gel with the scenes or sound effects playing beneath them. The resulting soundscapes only make you long once more for the work of composer Theodore Shapiro, whose decent, influence-heavy score really doesn’t deserve the short shrift that it receives.

Other than its unnecessary cash grab of a soundtrack, ‘Spies in Disguise’ is a breezily entertaining romp. Star Will Smith’s charisma-laden vocal performance perfectly suits the character of Sterling, first-timers Troy Quane and Nick Bruno direct proceedings with energy and efficiency, and editors Randy Trager and Christopher Campbell maintain an up-tempo rhythm throughout. If the diminishing critical and box office returns of their ‘Ice Age’ franchise has animation house Blue Sky Studios looking for a new flagship series, they could do a lot worse than taking flight with Sterling and Walter once more.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out January 1.

20th Century Fox.

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