Spies in Disguise does for the spy genre what The Incredibles did for the superhero genre. The movie isn't on that level quality-wise, although it does show that animation can be used to tackle complex subject matter typically reserved for live-action. Technology has allowed these films to take on greater scope, so that a story about a secret agent who turns into a bird can still have elaborate action sequences on a James Bond-ian level. That makes it fun to watch for animation fans of all ages.
Will Smith provides the voice of Lance Sterling, a world-renowned super-spy. After being set up to take the blame for the theft of a powerful drone, he looks for a way to elude the government agents seeking to bring him in. For help, Lance turns to scientist pal Walter Beckett (Tom Holland). He ends up accidentally drinking a potion Walter has been working on, and is promptly turned into a pigeon. In his new bird-like form, he has to clear his name, while also foiling the real culprit, a heinous villain named Killian (Ben Mendelsohn).
The action scenes in Spies in Disguise are quite impressive. They're designed with just as much over-the-top enthusiasm as any 007 picture. There are car chases, thrilling “stunts,” and imaginatively-conceived fights. Of course, with the hero being a bird, sequences like these have a certain tongue-in-cheek (tongue-in-beak?) spin. Nevertheless, they do generate excitement. One of the best such moments finds Lance, in pigeon form, doing battle with a Sumo wrestler-sized arms dealer. It's funny, yet tense because we recognize the absurd disparity in the size of the combatants.
The idea of a man turning into a pigeon is silly. That said, the film makes it work by fully embracing that silliness. Bird puns and jokes are everywhere, starting with the title -- Spies in Disguise, spies in da skies. Get it? There are gags about pigeons having a wide range of vision, as when Lance tells Walter, “I can see my butt and your face at the same time.” You even get a killer cloaca reference. (And if you don't know what a cloaca is, by all means Google that.) Rather than going for groaners, the movie comes up with jokes that are smart and clever. Pigeons are annoying, Spies in Disguise knows it, and a surprising amount of hilarity ensues.
Visually, the animation has all the beauty and detail viewers have come to expect from Blue Sky Studios, the company behind Ice Age, Rio, and The Peanuts Movie. The finale is particularly well-done, incorporating shots that make you feel as though you're flying through the air with the characters. Blasts of color – for reasons that won't be spoiled here -- factor in, leading to an eye-popping experience.
The plot of Spies in Disguise is admittedly thin, and the film lacks the depth of character that makes the best animated features so special. Strong voice work, beautiful animation, and an abundance of laugh-inducing jokes keep it afloat. If you want a decent family film that everyone can have a good time at, here's one that fits the bill nicely.
out of four
Spies in Disguise is rated PG for action, violence, and rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.