I grew up enjoying the Spy Kids movies, their strange aesthetic and cool gadgets certainly made an imprint into my memory, and when I was thinking about doing a rematch for this month it seemed like a prime candidate. What really pushed it over for me was upon researching the film (by research I mean a quick Google search) I soon discovered that the film sits at a dumbfounding 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Whatever was in the critics’ water at screenings in 2001 sure left a positive mark on them upon viewing Spy Kids. I have several theories as to why this could be, which I will get into throughout the piece, along with whether the filmmaking choices work effectively.
The first part of the film that stands as a unique presence in the children’s film/spy hybrid space in which Spy Kids exists, is the true auteur vision director Robert Rodriguez brings to it. Rodriguez is a strange choice to direct a kid’s movie, he gained notice creating a short horror film which then allowed him to make El Mariachi–an action film that would spawn two loose sequels (as we will see Rodriguez loves serializing things). Perhaps more importantly this spawned a friendship with Quentin Tarantino whose work and styles would become highly intertwined (especially in 2007’s Grindhouse which saw them each releasing a film as part of a double feature in the vein of old B-movies they enjoyed). Any filmmaker whose tastes are in line with Tarantino, certainly should not be expected to be creating a series of kid’s movies; though I should note on record I would be first in line to see a Tarantino children’s flick and might even consider having a child just for the occasion.
Like Tarantino, Rodriguez is a cinephile whose tastes veer toward the violent, gory, and low brow. This obsession with peculiar off-beat films does pour over into the aesthetic of Spy Kids, but the greatest influence Rodriguez brings is a Latino one. Rodriguez is of Mexican descent, and the film makes no bones about the characters’ heritage, emphasizing a sense of pride for them (“Remember, you are a Cortez”). The early scenes (which are among the best) showcase Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas’ budding relationship as rival spies is backed by Latin classical guitar (composed by Rodriguez himself) and feels truly a part of a specific culture. With a specific point of view, the characters are grounded in a reality–a reality outside the normal American spy’s perspective.
The other Rodriguez styling of note would not really come into play until years later, but perhaps hints at a wider vision of the Spy Kids world that allowed for it to be so successful. After the Cortez children have discovered their parents are spies, that their uncle is not their uncle, and the spy organization has tried to steal the third brain from them, they seek refuge from their real uncle–gadget designer Machete. Machete (played by Danny Trujillo) is an important part of the Spy Kids universe, he plays a Han Solo role in saving the day toward the end and helps to reaffirm the film’s family first message. Where it really goes off the track was in a fake trailer that appeared in Grindhouse which showed Trujillo in a film called Machete; come 2010 that film was actually released and it was confirmed that it indeed was the same character, brother of Gregario and uncle to Juni and Carmen: Machete Cortez. Of course Machete unfortunately never makes mention of anything in the Spy Kids world and is itself highly graphic in nature, only adding to the mind-blowing decision to serialize the two stories together.
Spy Kids is pretty weird, it’s probably not as weird throughout as The Fifth Element, but a huge part of the movie’s plot takes place around Floop’s Floogies, a creepy television program with distorted Floogles as the main characters alongside Alan Cumming’s Floop (Floop is a mad man). Floop kind of wants to take over the world (but is ultimately a good guy?) and has large thumb henchmen while he is manipulated by Minion (no not those little yellow guys!). All of this gives it an aesthetic with more thought put into than your average kid’s movie setting. The scene where Juni confronts a giant cloud-encompassed Floop particularly stands out as a great piece of visual style.
Another fun moment is the contrasting of the floor falling out between Gregario and Carmen. When Gregorio notices the floor is falling like a puzzle between them he attempts to jump across it, failing, but soon discovering it is a graphic illusion as he smacks against the hard floor beneath him. Carmen notices the same thing and as she leaps to get to Juni, she actually falls downward into Floop’s abyss. The moment is never explained–why did one fall but the other didn’t? But it doesn’t really matter, it’s a small sense of ironic humor that is just kind of fun. I think this is the tone that makes Spy Kids such a joy to watch.
On top of all this, like any spy movie should have, the film is filled with cool gadgets. As Juni and Carmen realize they are born into a spy legacy, cool gadget after cool gadget is introduced and they get to test each one out. On its face these scenes are pretty cool, but much like I always wanted to, perhaps misguidedly, have the life of 1994’s Richie Rich, the coolness doesn’t live up today to my 11 year old standards. And I think that’s my overall takeaway with this rewatch of Spy Kids, it’s pretty fun and enjoyable, for all the reasons stated above, but ultimately I think you have to be a kid to truly dig yourself into its thrills. That’s not to say that this kind of film doesn’t have merit, not every kid’s movie has to be filled with double entendres or have Pixar’s deeply emotional themes. It’s just fine being a film that is intended for children, and luckily for kids it is a really good, avoiding a lot of the cheesy jokes and silly plot lines that often befall movies in that genre. Oh and did I mention George Clooney makes a cameo?