THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sometimes the lack of quality in family movies depresses me. Sure, we're lucky enough to have the annual Disney animated features and the occasional good non-Disney family film like Chicken Run. But then we get stuff like the insipid Pokemon movies or the flatulence-obsessed Snow Day. You know - the kind of movies that make the thought of your children sitting in front of the TV all day seem not-so-bad. Thank goodness, then, for Spy Kids, a family picture of real imagination.

Antonio Bandaras and Carla Gugino play Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, former super-spies who have now retired to raise their children Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara). The kids know nothing of their parents' past lives, but certainly enjoy hearing a bedtime story called "The Spies Who Fell in Love." Domestic bliss is shattered when the Cortez adults are suddenly called back into action. A demented madman (like there are any other kind) named Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) has captured four other elite spies and turned them into bizarre cartoon-like creatures who co-star in his TV kids' show.

Carla Gugino and Antonio Bandaras are the parents of the Spy Kids
During the mission, Floop kidnaps Gregorio and Ingrid. The children are then visited by "Uncle Felix" (Cheech Marin), who fills them in on the family secret and urges them to save their parents. Hidden in the walls of their home, Carmen and Juni discover an array of techno-gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. They set out on a rescue mission that leads them to Floop's castle. There they must fight his minions, known as "thumb-thumbs" - creatures whose heads and limbs are giant thumbs. (The fact that they are "all thumbs" is played for a lot of laughs.) Eventually, the kids uncover an evil plot to take over the world, which every good movie villain absolutely needs to have. In this case, the plot has to do with robot children, which leads to some clever scenes in which Carmen and Juni meet the robotic versions of themselves.

Spy Kids was written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, who burst onto the indie scene with El Mariachi and proceeded to make hard-core action-horror films like From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty. Rodriguez may seem like an unusual choice to make a family film, but he's not. Before hitting the big time, the director cut his teeth by making short films starring his younger siblings. This movie is really in the same spirit those shorts, including the award-winning Bedhead.

What remains constant from his more adult-oriented pictures is the pacing. Rodriguez crams the movie with action and lightning-fast pacing. Movies for families - good or bad - rarely have so much style. And rather than using the style as an empty exercise, the director uses it to inject energy into a good story. Spy Kids is packed with the kinds of things kids love: weird villains, cool gizmos, brave heroes. It's the ultimate in wish fulfillment for children, as well as a movie that celebrates the intelligence of kids. Besides - is there a kid alive who hasn't dreamed of saving the world? Rodriguez makes it seem like it really could happen in grand style.

Most of all, I just love the imagination of this movie. Every second is packed with something new, from the underwater car to the trick rooms of Floop's castle to those hilarious thumb-thumbs. You really never know what you'll see next, and that makes watching Spy Kids a ton of fun. Kids deserve movies that inspire them to dream. Too many of them just pander to a young audience with endless crotch injury jokes and other slapstick nonsense. This one encourages kids to set their minds free.

Rodriguez deserves major kudos for doing a movie with this kind of ambition. Every second is joyful; watching it is like being trapped in the world's coolest playground. If I had seen Spy Kids as a child, I would have thought it was the greatest movie ever made. Having seen it as an adult, I can honesty say that for 90 minutes, I felt like a kid all over again.

( 1/2 out of four)

Spy Kids is rated PG for action sequences. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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