Tom Holland (as a nerd) and Will Smith (as a suave spy) in a film that plays a bit like “What if one of Q’s gadgets accidentally turned James Bond into a pigeon? Oh, also, Q is a teenager in this scenario.” What could go wrong? Lots of things, apparently.
I refer, of course, to Spies in Disguise, the latest from Blue Sky Studios. Most known for its Ice Age and Rio franchises, Blue Sky – now a Disney subsidiary – stepped a bit outside its comfort zone last year with Spies in Disguise, which has far more action movie in it than usual for the studio. Sure, Spies in Disguise ultimately charms as a buddy comedy about a boy genius and a spy-turned-talking-pigeon, but it’s also a globe-trotting adventure in the 007 tradition, hopping from exotic locales like Playa del Carmen and Venice and launching into one intricately staged spy movie action sequence after another. (Like any self-respecting 007 clone, there is an underwater escape scene.)
Blue Sky’s animators bring this all to life in convincing, if somewhat uninspiring fashion. Released Christmas Day, Spies in Disguise failed to spark joy in audiences, eventually ending its run as the lowest-grossing title in Blue Sky history. (The film had been out a full month before coronavirus theater closures in China and elsewhere began in earnest.) Now widely available on home video, however, Spies in Disguise stands out as an entirely worthy rental option for anyone hard up for new animation.
When we first meet Walter Beckett (Holland), he’s a small child with countless inventions but no friends and one very supportive single mother (Rachel Brosnahan, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel herself) who proudly works as a police officer. Years down the line, he’s a Doogie Howser type who graduated from MIT at 15 and enthusiastically builds gadgets for the super-secret spy agency H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity, Valor). He’s also socially awkward, still has no friends, but devotes his life to helping law enforcement in honor of his mother, who – hold back the tears – died in action.
By comparison, Lance Sterling (Smith) could not be any more different. Cocky, smooth, and completely unflappable, he’s the type of spy who can quip with the best of ‘em and completely neutralize a room of thugs without really trying. He also, however, struggles to play by the rules and assumes everything will always work out if he simply follows his gut instinct. On an opening mission against a cybernetically enhanced terrorist, he defies orders and takes on the entire gang, cleverly improvising when one of his gadgets – one created by Beckett – proves surprisingly nonlethal.
When back at HQ, where’s treated like the varsity quarterback on gameday, Sterling fires Beckett for embarrassing him in the field like that.
Clearly, these two will end the story as best buds. That’s just how these kinds of movies work, and in this case, the odd couple’s nascent friendship gets its start when a newly-framed Sterling turns to newly-fired Beckett for off-the-grid help. With few too questions asked, however, Sterling impulsively drinks something in Beckett’s lab he shouldn’t, and bada bing, bada boom, we’ve got ourselves Agent 00Fowl. (Yes, I know pigeons aren’t technically considered fowl, but just go with me here.) To make matters worse, the antidote isn’t ready yet.
As if turned-into-a-pigeon wasn’t a big enough problem on its own, Sterling is also dealing with a relentless Internal Affairs agent (Rashida Jones) as well as a vengeance-seeking arch-enemy (Ben Mendelsohn) with an army of (stop me if you’re getting tired of this modern action movie trope) weaponized drones. The nerdy kid scientist who wants to tag along is an additional complication too many for Sterling, but, as a pigeon, there are many things he can’t do. Like, for example, open a door.
So, begrudgingly, the spy who always thinks he can do everything alone takes on a partner, and while Sterling quickly appreciates the strategic advantages of being a spy who looks just like a pigeon it takes him a bit longer to warm to having an actual friend in the field with him.
Like a lot of kids movies, Spies in Disguise uses a high concept to trojan horse a rather simple life lesson. Here, that lesson is the need for friendship and teamwork. With a script credited to Ferdinand’s Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, Spies in Disguise takes a cue from The Lego Batman Movie and attempts to amusingly deconstruct an icon, with Will Smith’s 007-stand-in ultimately boiled down to a rather sad loner who learns the value of friendship and cooperation from Holland’s Beckett character. Hey kids, the movie says while channeling Wonder Pets, isn’t everything better when we do it as a team?
At the same time, Spies in Disguise seeks to remind kids that their brains can be their true superpower, humbling Sterling’s bravado while elevating Beckett’s genius. There’s also a throughline about the need for nonviolent conflict resolution. One of Beckett’s best inventions, for example, is a protective bubble he calls the “inflatable hug.” You can look at that as a metagag about “how do you make 007 for kids,” but the film gets consistent laughs out of undercutting standard spy movie moments with Beckett’s cutesy, nonviolent gadgets.
It’s all so…cute. For some, nauseatingly so. For others, just plain boring. However, an animated action-comedy that takes the piss out of 007 and features Will Smith and Tom Holland at their charismatic best doesn’t need to be Pixar good. I just need something like this to capably pass the time. Luckily, Spies in Disguise’s license to entertain is fully intact.
Random Parting Thoughts
- Blue Sky’s Bond parody renamed James Bond “Lance Sterling.” FX’s Bond parody Archer renamed James Bond “Archer Sterling.” Is there some reason the “Sterling” name keeps coming up like this?
- Of all the things I expected to happen in an animated spy comedy featuring Will Smith at his charismatic best and Tom Holland at his nerdiest, a shameless steal of Anchorman 2‘s slow-motion Winnebago wreck sequence wasn’t one of them.
Spies in Disguise is currently available to rent.