Will Smith & Tom Holland lend their voices to an animated adventure that makes up in charm what it lacks in originality.
Animation has a way of making even the most outlandish of high concept movies feel at least somewhat plausible. The nature of the medium makes it so that even the most surreal ideas or actions feel grounded in a sense of reality. As such, the concept of Spies in Disguise (where a James Bond-esque spy turns into a pigeon) works in a way that seems inexplicable. First-time directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane manage to take a patently ridiculous elevator pitch and turn it into a fun action thriller for kids.
When it comes to spies, Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) is the best of the best, and his skill and charisma make him a huge star among his fellow colleagues at his intelligence agency. Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a scientist who develops gadgets for spies, is less popular at the agency. Despite his genius (he mastered the human genome at 14 and graduated from MIT at 15), his weird obsession with cuteness and his refusal to make lethal weapons leads him to be fired at the behest of Lance.
The unlikely pair are brought together when Lance is framed for working with terrorist Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) and must go on the run. Remembering that Walter was working on a serum that would make him “disappear”, he breaks into Walter’s house, and unknowingly drinks the serum, only to find out that it will turn instead of turning him invisible, it turns him into a pigeon. Now Lance and Walter must team up to defeat Killian, clear Lance’s name, and save the world. But what chance do a nerd and a pigeon have against a criminal mastermind?
As stories go, Spies in Disguise is surprisingly pretty solid. While the plot is straightforward and the character arcs are predictable from scene one, it keeps itself at a brisk pace, with plenty of well-done action set pieces to keep the audience engaged. Bruno and Quane give us a multitude of different types of action, whether it’s Lance’s introduction where he single-handedly fighting against a Yakuza gang (think a kid-friendly Kill Bill) Walter crashing through the streets of Venice in pursuit of one of Killian’s drones, or a group of spies (and pigeons) facing off against homicidal drones, there’s no shortage of thrills.
While the spy stuff is fun, the heart of Spies lies in the relationship between Lance and Walter, specifically on how Lance grows from their friendship. The super spy is shown to be a lone wolf who sees himself as above everyone else, and thinks that violence is the only way to stop the bad guys. Walter is friendly, loves unicorns and Korean Dramas, and will only design tech that is either defensive in nature or will restrain your enemies. While Lance’s suave demeanor and espionage skills are portrayed as cool, it’s clear that Walter’s empathetic nature and pacifism are what we should emulate, and Lance’s character growth comes from him learning to embrace a softer form of masculinity.
This soft form of masculinity heavily relies on relationships, with Lance not only bonding with Walter, but also a group of weird pigeons, who annoy him at first, but whose quirks eventually help him fight against Killian. The message of creating good relationships is a common one, but it’s an important message for kids, and it’s charming to see a bunch of pigeons fighting evil robots.
While Lance’s suave demeanor and espionage skills are portrayed as cool, it’s clear that Walter’s empathetic nature and pacifism are what we should emulate.
While the pro-soft masculinity is a fresh take in kids’ media, the humor in the movie is mostly stale. The filmmakers are hoping that slapstick and silliness will keep you in stitches. There are a few one-liners coming from Lance and some jokes about Walter being weird, but mostly the humor comes from characters getting hurt or Lance trying to act like a bird. Unfortunately, most of the jokes will fall flat for adult audiences, but not all of them. One funny scene has Walter trying to commandeer a Vespa, only to crash it immediately, another has Lance and Walter’s reconciliation played like a Korean drama. Even though the comedy isn’t strong, it isn’t unbearable, and the action will make up for it.
It’s obvious that the producers are banking the film’s success on Will Smith and Tom Holland; so much so that Lance and Walter’s character design is just a stylized version of their voice actors. Choosing Smith and Holland is a good choice, as they obviously have box office draw, but the charisma these actors have behind the camera doesn’t seem to translate behind a microphone. They are definitely serviceable, but they lack the manic energy common in animated characters.
The rest of the cast also has the same issue, and it leads to characters that feel more subdued than they should for such a zany premise. Mendelsohn’s Killian is menacing, but not memorable, and the other spies are equally forgettable. Rashida Jones plays an internal affairs agent on Lance’s tail, and should have been a great foil to the duo, but she lacks any real strength. Even Reba McEntire, who plays the agency’s director, is devoid of the singer’s usual spunk. No one does a bad job, they’re just all right, which works for a popcorn flick, and it shouldn’t detract from enjoying yourself.
Fortunately, Spies in Disguise really shines in the visuals. Like any character in a decent spy movie, Walter and Lance find themselves in exotic locales and the backgrounds are gorgeously designed with a heightened realism that makes them feel lush without feeling like fantasy lands. The characters who inhabit the world of Spies also look great, with distinctive designs, specifically Killian’s cybernetic appearance. The action scenes are well animated, with enough energy to be exciting, but they aren’t so fast that they become confusing.
At first glance, it’s hard not to judge Spies in Disguise as a silly movie from its premise. But that has little to do with what makes the film enjoyable. Despite its superficial silliness, it actually has something to offer, and it makes me excited to see what else Bruno and Quane have in store in their next movie.
Spies in Disguise sneaks into theaters on December 25th.