‘Spies in Disguise’ Delivers Charming Family Entertainment While Riffing on Spy Movies
Will Smith has officially reached that peak in pop culture stardom where he can become a pigeon on film and raise few eyebrows. This is the starting point of “Spies in Disguise,” a semi-satirical animated take on the classic spy movie genre. Beyond mere spoof, it has a certain charm in its wackiness where a meaningful message is buried within all the layers of digital action and gags. It’s likeable for what it has to say even as it delivers the expected buffet of sights and action.
Lance Sterling (Smith) is a secret agent decked in the customary James Bond suit and bowtie. He’s suave and cocky, capable of leaping out of any building and fighting off any number of assassins. Back at headquarters in Washington, D.C., Lance gets annoyed with an inventor at the office, a kid named Walter (Tom Holland), who insists it’s not always necessary to use harsh violence against enemies. Lance has become particularly irritated with a gadget that hypnotizes opponents with showers of glitter backed by cute cat footage. The super spy nonchalantly fires Walter. But when he’s accused of stealing a sensitive government item, Lance finds himself on the run and asking the kid he just fired for help. However when Lance accidentally drinks a new potion developed by Walter, meant to help agents become invisible, he is transformed into a pigeon, this is because Walter had used a feather from his pet pigeon Lovey to test out the experiment. Stuck in his new form while Walter tries to develop an antidote, Lance has to wing it and try to track down super villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), the foe responsible for his defaming. Killian is seeking a list of every secret agent (of course) to hunt them all down.
In a movie landscape often saturated by big budget superhero movies even adults take seriously, “Spies in Disguise” joins other recent escapes like “The Angry Birds Movie 2” as a film basking in clearly being meant for the under-10 age range. Yet its sense of satire could also be enjoyed by adults in the audience who will be more familiar with old spy franchises like the James Bond movies. Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane reference and wink at countless Bond archetypes. The opening title sequence is an homage to those elongated 007 openings with a hit song playing over trippy visuals, Lance is somehow always in a suit no matter the situation, and when he walks into the office employees don’t want to wash their hands after shaking his. And of course Killian is a combination of every spy villain ever devised, from his obsession to steal secret lists to having a robotic hand capable of controlling endless killer drones. The inspiration for the film comes from a lively 2009 animated short named “Pigeon: Impossible,” where a quiet spy has his day nearly ruined in apocalyptic fashion (literally) by a pigeon looking for snacks. That was a lovable exercise that poked fun at the idea of spies and secret suitcases, the movie expands the premise to another level.
While “Spies in Disguise” kicks off as pure action thriller, Bruno and Quane then subvert the material itself in cheerfully goofy, fun ways. The opening action sequence where Lance fights off a horde of Yakuzas ends with everyone going gaga over footage of a cute kitty, and Lance is so cool he throws around portable speakers to provide his own soundtrack while fighting (featuring music by Smith unsurprisingly). When Lance turns into a pigeon thanks to Walter’s potion, the film gains a new charm. There are even memorable shots of Lance’s new point of view, where we get to see the width of what a pigeon’s eyesight covers. The banter lets Will Smith do his recognizable, hyper comedy routine, which is hilarious in how he truly does evoke a guy trapped in a pigeon’s body (wait for when he discovers a pigeon answers the call of nature). We get some likeable side pigeons too, like Lovey, an elegant lady bird who tries to snuggle up to Lance, a plump pigeon prone to rolling around and Crazy Eyes, an anemic-looking pigeon who likes to swallow and then puke items. Thanks to Walter we get quite the dose of scientific facts involving pigeon habits, like their love for games and flight speed.
While “Spies in Disguise” lacks the depth of something like “Incredibles 2,” what gives it more merit is precisely when it reveals what it’s truly saying. At its core it’s a movie about friendship and alternatives to violence. Lance has to learn in pigeon form to tone down the ego and accept help from Walter, and Walter’s gadgets provide counters to typical movie weapons. Instead of grenades why not launch bubbles that can trap devices? When Lance and Walter capture a large Yakuza gangster, Walter uses a pleasant-smelling truth serum to get answers. It’s an animated rebuke to countless action movies, even animated ones, where everything is easily resolved with mindless mayhem. Here there’s action for sure, but with light humor that tells kids there’s nothing wrong with actually trying to be good. Some of the better moments of excitement have little to do with guns, but instead the visual energy of Lance being carried over a river by his pigeon comrades, since he doesn’t know how to fly exactly. The directors can’t help themselves and throw in a few in-jokes for adults to grin knowingly at, including a particularly funny laying of an egg. There’s also fun voice work here from Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan and DJ Khaled as the government team trying to catch Lance.
“Spies in Disguise” is a fine little family outing if you have audience members still too young for an extravaganza like “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” or if you already saw the latter and seek a lighter follow up. Will Smith as a spy turned pigeon must have sounded infinitely weird on paper, but it works in its own, oddball fashion. But what counts is that while being goofy, it’s not without a few lessons to share.
“Spies in Disguise” opens Dec. 25 in theaters nationwide.