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Spies in Disguise

Posted January 1, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

First things first: Spies in Disguise is a misnomer. While there are indeed multiple spies in this movie, only one of them wears any kind of disguise. The plural is only there because of the rhyme. Imagine my disappointment to find that the movie only features one international superspy getting turned into a pigeon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The superspy in question is Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith. The character is pretty straightforward: He’s a James Bond parody by way of Will Smith’s swagger. Also, because he’s animated, he’s free to defy all known laws of physics.

The bad guy is Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), though I don’t think he’s ever referred to by name in the movie. Mostly, he’s just called “Robot-Hand”. Anyway, he’s a cyborg with a grudge against Lance, and he’s just stolen a highly advanced assassination drone. Even worse, he’s framed Lance for the theft. So now Agent Marcy of Internal Affairs (Rashida Jones), along with two operatives code-named “Eyes” and “Ears” (respectively voiced by Karen Gillan and DJ Khaled) are chasing after Lance Sterling even as he’s trying to clear his name and stop the real supervillain.

Enter Walter Beckett, voiced by Tom Holland. He’s a socially awkward misfit prodigy in the tech department whose work is consistently rejected because of his peculiar obsession with glitter and kittens. Basically, Walter is trying to find non-violent solutions for an extremely violent world.

With nowhere else to run, Lance goes to Walter for a way to completely disappear. He needs to move quickly all around the world, and he needs to stay off everyone’s radar. What Lance gets is an unwitting mouthful of Walter’s highly experimental gene transformation formula. Thus Lance is transformed into a flying animal with 360-degree vision, capable of seeing light waves invisible to the human eye, blending into any crowd or environment with perfect ease.

The pigeon: The ultimate disguise for a spy. Also, Pigeon Lance can talk. Nobody knows how.

Right off the bat, this movie struck me for how “adult” it is for a PG-rated animated kids’ movie. For example, while off-color jokes by way of nudity is nothing new, and there’s nothing here that’s terribly explicit, I have no idea how the filmmakers could get away with so many butts and nudity-related jokes and not get a PG-13. Also, there are stereotypical Yakuza baddies in this movie from the very first action scene. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that, but I’ll leave it to somebody more qualified than I to examine the cultural sensitivity of the Yakuza’s portrayal here.

Then we have the violence. I know kids nowadays see actual handguns and swords in Marvel films all the time, but to see them in an animated kids’ movie (and again, one with a PG rating) is rather jarring nonetheless. But then, this level of violence is rather necessary for a central thematic point.

Lance works with the viewpoint that it takes fire to fight fire. There are people in the world who are genuinely evil, and they can’t be taken down with anything less than guns and bombs. Walter completely rejects that argument, arguing that letting villains bring heroes down to their level is still a net loss. Fighting fire with fire only leaves everyone burned. Though fighting fire with glitter bombs and inflatable hugs doesn’t seem to be doing much, either.

This is easily the most potent theme in the film, with the strongest material for Holland and Smith to work with. It certainly helps that both characters have lost people important to them: It’s heavily implied that Lance has lost good people in the field, and we know for a fact that Walter’s mother (voiced in a prologue by Rachel Brosnahan) was a police officer KIA. One suffered loss and it hardened him. The other suffered loss and it gave him the mission of making the world a kinder, safer place.

What’s even better about Walter is that he finally gets a chance to test his prototype inventions on the field. Some work better than others. Hilarity ensues.

Meanwhile, Lance Sterling has always been the headstrong center of attention, and now he’s forced to take the most inconspicuous and mundane form imaginable. He’s always been a lone wolf, and now he has to grudgingly accept whatever help he can get because he can’t really do much as a bird. Thus we have your typical development arc in which the loner learns to discover friendship and it plays out exactly as you’d expect. In fact, in the filmmakers’ mad dash to cram two hours of plot into a 100-minute film, they embrace every cliche within reach.

It’s a good thing Smith and Holland are putting so much into their characters, because the rest of the voice cast kinda sucks. Yes, Ben Mendelsohn acquits himself well enough, but this archvillain role is so deep into his wheelhouse, he barely even has to make an effort. Rashida Jones suffers because Marcy is more effective as a plot device and her characterization is wildly inconsistent. Likewise, poor Karen Gillan can’t seem to pick an accent and stick with it. DJ Khaled is every bit as obnoxious and wretched as you’d expect. Reba McEntire shows up, woefully miscast as the head of the spy agency, and painfully phoning in every line.

Really, the whole movie seems to have a tone problem. The film whiplashes between juvenile lowbrow humor and heady (by kids’ movie standards) discussions about non-violence. We’ve got the pathos of Walter’s dead mother, next to whatever inane thing comes out of DJ Khaled’s mouth. And lest we forget, this is still a hard-PG movie, a kid-friendly deconstruction of the inherently adult spy thriller genre. Finding a happy medium in all of this was apparently too hard, so I guess the filmmakers decided to bounce back and forth between extremes with the hope that it all evens out in the wash.

With all of that said, I still got a kick out of all the various sight gags. The action scenes are a lot of fun, and I have to admire the filmmakers’ commitment to the central notion of a man getting turned into a pigeon. Likewise, while the more “mature” moments feel out of place, I have to give the filmmakers credit for being bold enough to go there, and for giving no less time and attention to the more cutesy jokes. Last but not least, while the plot is predictable from first to last, at least it moves along at a good clip.

Spies in Disguise is certainly not the best animated film of the year, but I’ve seen worse attempts at establishing a new IP. It’s important for kids to have a movie that expresses non-violent themes in a timely way that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and doing that by way of a spy thriller parody was honestly kind of genius. And of course it helps that the film is loaded with so many entertaining action scenes and amusing sight gags. With all of that said, I have a hard time getting past the cliched, predictable plot and the poor overall quality of the voice cast.

This one gets a second-run recommendation.