Spy Kids

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Spy Kids

Robert Rodriguez's earliest amateur films were made in his backyard with his younger siblings as stars. Now that he has three kids of his own, the Texas action director often casts his progeny in mini-epics that the family thinks up and shoots together on the rolling land of his ranch outside Austin. Spy Kids is Rodriguez's attempt to translate the aimless, amiable atmosphere of those conceived-on-the-spot, child-sized adventures for the big screen, and despite some eyesore effects necessitated by a limited budget, the movie plainly exudes a playful, Saturday-afternoon feeling. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino star as married secret agents who have retired to raise their two kids. When several of their former colleagues disappear, the couple returns to the game, only to be promptly captured by a villainous children's-show host played by Alan Cumming. Family friend Cheech Marin informs the youngsters, cocky truant Alexa Vega and worrywart younger brother Daryl Sabara, that they'll need to hide out in a safe house until their parents can escape. Instead, Vega and Sabara concoct a plan to overcome killer robots, double agents, and Cumming's booby-trapped island lair—all of which look as though they were sketched out by 10-year-olds while daydreaming in math class. Rodriguez takes more than a half-dozen credits on Spy Kids, going beyond writing and directing to take a hand in the editing, camera operation, music, and visual effects. Some of these jobs might have been more effectively handled by an expert: While the stunts are as kinetic and thrilling as you'd expect from the director of El Mariachi and Desperado, the digitally created vehicles and jetpacks look as cruddy as you'd expect from the director of From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty. But while their insertion into hyperbolic chase scenes shows some rough edges, the design of the gadgetry is invariably impressive. If nothing else, Spy Kids is a delight to look at, highlighted by the surreal, Wonka-esque conception of Cumming's TV program. Other treats: The realistic kid dialogue, the personal message of family togetherness, and the fact that more than once, characters rip off fake moustaches to reveal their "true face." It's a grand, silly, ultimately meaningless gesture, and precisely what makes Spy Kids such good-natured fun.