I have been a bit underwhelmed with animation of late. More drawn to the Pixar classics, I loved The Incredibles 2 but gave Toy Story 4 a miss (did I dodge a bullet?). So, to attend a screening of Spies in Disguise, a Blue Sky Studios – maker of Ice Age franchise and Rio – I went in with low expectations. And with such a lazy title, I expected the worst.
The story centres on one of the world’s greatest spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith), a cutthroat agent who works along all the time, with sharp fighting skills and deadly charisma. Back at the agency there is Walter Becker (Tom Holland), a wannabe inventor of gadgets who is opting for more friendly and less harmful weapons in the force. Namely ones that shoot glitter and the like. As their paths intersect, with a wild early twist that I personally did not see coming, it becomes a buddy comedy that plays off both Lance’s idea of what fighting evil means and Welter getting some experience in the field.
The animation is a first for directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno and you can tell at times. It has a quick pace, always moving to the next sequence and rapid action scenes, both mindless but effective. The colour scheme is bright and perfect for catching the eye. Unfortunately jokes throughout are paper thin, but it’s mainly a solid film for children, that satisfies around the school holiday times. Fortunately, the film is improved by its voice cast, both of whom are perfect for each role. The animation itself is a bit reductive, and there’s no hiding that it feels like elements of The Incredibles are here too.
But the key element here that challenges the norms is the underlying themes. There’s no denying that Walter is a pacifist, believing that in order to catch criminals and prevent attacks, there is a humane way that doesn’t involve serious harm or killing. It’s an anti-violence stance which is rare for an animated kids film to take, but it’s a strong opening for conversations for families to talk about the political persuasions. It also plays off a lot of 007 hyper masculine genre tropes, which is refreshing for the genre.
Unfortunately, while it pushes boundaries, it doesn’t break any. Its story is still a mainly predictable play by play. It does mock the genre but doesn’t go far enough. It could have done a sort of Spy for kids, but it doesn’t have the sharp comedy enough or the right tone to push it too much. While it succeeds in presenting a crazy premise and an alternative political messaging underlying the plot, as a story it simply doesn’t fly as much as it’s pigeon co-stars do.
Come for the buddy comedy, stay for the pacifist theme.
It’s not as funny as it thinks it is and may have done well about 5 years ago.
Originally published on Back Row, 16 December, 2019.