When the world’s best spy is turned into a pigeon, he must rely on his nerdy tech officer to save the world. (from IMDb)
Pixar’s The Incredibles was a brilliant way to honor the superhero / spy genres while keeping the movie relatively family friendly. 20th Century Fox’s Spies In Disguise – which is now a Disney property since their recent purchase of almost all things Fox – is an action-driven buddy comedy that takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of James Bond through the eyes of a well-meaning and creative kid. In the film, Lance Sterling, wonderfully voiced by Will Smith, is the world’s top secret agent, feared and revered by criminals and coworkers alike. But when Lance is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s forced to turn to a young, but kind of naive, tech officer named Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) for help. However, an attempt to help Lance disappear literally turns him into a pigeon, and he reluctantly teams up with Walter to clear his good name while hopefully finding a way to turn back to his dashing human self.
From the start, Spies in Disguise feels edgier than what one would expect from something from Disney, setting it apart as clearly something not usually found under their name (which is probably why they’re letting Blue Sky Animation Studio keep all the credit at this point). The film even feels edgier than the occasionally crass Ice Age franchise, which is also from Blue Sky. The world of the spy is fleshed out in a pretty violent way (for an animated movie aimed at kids, that is), with the villain, Killian, having a pretty unsettling robotic clawed hand and a partially robotic face–both we later learn are the result of him having sustained an injury. Heck, even the film’s opening theme song is presented in a very James-Bond-esque way, with dancing silhouettes and a catchy pop theme song. This movie is basically an animated-Bond-film-for-kids, but probably not for the younger, more squeamish ones. While it isn’t gory at any point, there’s a scene where Killian kills an innocent lab worker by holding him by the neck over a high cliff and letting him go. We watch this through the scientist’s cracked pair of glasses lying on the ground, too. The rougher moments are shuffled in with comedic ones, to keep things light, but there’s a greater sense of tension and high stakes in the way the story is presented here. There’s also brief rear male nudity when we see the bare butt of a large, overweight criminal who’s just gotten out of a bath. And when one of Walter’s gadgets causes the thug to essentially turn into a floppy, boneless state, we see his bare butt a couple more times. All in all, I’d say this movie takes the tension and violence of a movie like The Incredibles and turns the dial up one or two more notches.
Thematically, the film borrows from the Fred Claus school of thought that “there is no such thing as a bad guy” (well, it was “kid” for Fred Claus, but you get the point). It even goes so far as to label the “good guy vs bad guy” idea an outdated thing of the past. Given that even the Bible is pretty clear about there being good and evil in the world, I don’t think it’s so easy to say that there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” people, but I agree that we can all opt to do good and bad things. Still, without the saving grace of Jesus, we’re all born into a sinful nature–but I can understand that a Hollywood film like this one isn’t going to take that into consideration. Still, the way the theme is presented here reminds me of the current social campaign to teach kids that “everybody wins,” which is just a really flawed way of thinking (and extremely unrealistic). And while there may be some merit in what Spies in Disguise is trying to say here about the nature of people, I don’t think they convey it well enough.
What it does get right, thematically, is the age-old theme of needing each other and that the new school of doing things can still help and impact the old school way of doing things. Walter’s sunny disposition and unique out-of-the-box methods aid Lance’s old school way of getting the job done, and it’s an encouragement to kids that it’s okay to be creative and unique. The idea, however, that the loner hero can still need friends and family is totally a retread of Batman’s journey in The LEGO Batman Movie. It was probably more heavy-handed in that film, but it’s certainly not a new idea. Also, let’s face it, Walter is basically Flint Lockwood from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in this movie. So if you pair up Flint with Batman, you’d get this movie… with a dash of The Emperor’s New Groove, with the hero turning into a pigeon here, instead of a llama.
As I said before, the content of Spies in Disguise is an edgier PG. It’s probably fine for parents and adults to enjoy, but I think there’s plenty in it that you wouldn’t want just any kid to take in. There is some off color humor, including the aforementioned rear male nudity. Additionally, there’s a gag that, just after Lance’s hand shrinks before he turns into a pigeon, he looks down his own pants and screams in horror that, unseen to us, something else has also shrunken in size. When Lance turns back into his human self at one point, he’s naked and we briefly see the side of his bare butt from a distance. There isn’t any blatant use of language (although I read there’s a “h*ll yeah,” but I didn’t catch it), but there is one instance where Lance, as a pigeon, swears and it’s completely bleeped out with pixelation over his mouth (played for laughs), and there is one incomplete “Holy–” and “Son of a—“. Finally, the violence is nonstop, with bad guys attacking the good guys with drones, swords, knives, guns, etc. And there are at least two instances where random characters are dropped from great heights to their death (we just see them dropping but don’t see their deaths).
Overall, Spies in Disguise is a pretty fun, well-animated action buddy comedy. It’s visually thrilling, packed with some great gags, and carried by some solid voice acting talent. It’s not for everyone, and parents should be a bit cautious, but it’s still one of the better animated films of 2019 (i.e. I’d choose this one over Abominable in a heartbeat).
– John DiBiase(reviewed: 3/14/20)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
The Blu-Ray combo pack of Spies in Disguise includes the feature film in stunning Blu-Ray, the standard Blu-Ray disc and a digital copy, along with the following Extras:
Super Secret Spy Mode – You can watch the entire film with this visual trivia track that occasionally has facts pop up, or members of the production team interrupt to talk. To start, the film’s two directors pop up to introduce it. There are fun little tidbits scattered throughout, like Easter eggs that reveal a little Robots cameo (remember that movie?), or even the squint-or-miss-it Ice Age character cameo, or how the two nerdy guys on the spy team are actually the directors themselves. If you’ve seen the movie before, this is a fun alternate way to watch it.
Infiltrating Blue Sky Studios (9:11) – This lone behind-the-scenes featurette is aimed at the kids, hosted by a young girl who plans on “sneaking into” Blue Sky. She takes us through the studio, talking to different crew about the character designs, the animation process, etc. The animators reveal that they would often record themselves performing to use as reference, and they delve into how light and color are important for conveying mood in a scene.
The Top Secret Guide to Gadgets (3:57) – This montage quickly gives an overview for a bunch of the gadgets showcased in the movie, including: The Suit, Cuff Links, Transformation Tonic, The Backpack, Inflatable Hug, Security Blanket and Collide-Oscope Grenade, Binder Bubbles, Grappling Hook Pen, The Watch, and the Audi RSQ E-tron.
“Then There Were Two” Music Video (3:24) is by Anderson .Paak and Mark Ronson. It shows them enter the studio to record, while the picture is in black and white, and when the song starts, the color kicks in. There’s also the “Freak of Nature” Music Video (3:44), featuring Mark Ronson and The Last Artful, Dodgr.
Next there’s a Making the Soundtrack “Then There were Two” (1:23), where Ronson talks about the song, and then Making the Soundtrack “Freak of Nature” (1:29) with Ronson and The Last Artful, Dodgr.
“Lunch Break” (1:44) – I didn’t see this on the Blu-Ray disc, but it was on the iTunes Extras. It’s a bonus animated short featuring Lance and Walter in a car chase. It’s basically a mini-promo for Audi, but a fun little post-credits type moment for the new partners.
Finally, there’s a Gallery featuring Color Keys and Moment Paintings, Character Designs, Locations, Props and Gadgets Concept Art, and the Theatrical Trailer (1:44).
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 2/25/20)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: A romantic couple in a Korean soap opera embrace crying; Lance’s hand shrinks, so he pulls at the waistband of his pants to look inside them (we don’t see anything). He then screams at what he sees; A large, overweight thug with tattoos all over his body is briefly seen naked from behind, so we see his bare butt. We see it again, and then a couple more times after he is rubberized by Walter’s gadget; After Pigeon Lance lays an egg, Walter realizes Pigeon Lance is a girl because he’d used the serum from a female bird; After Lance changes back in front of Walter, he reacts to himself being naked. We then see a distant shot of the side of Lance’s bare human butt briefly.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 incomplete “Holy–“; There’s a bleep and Lance’s mouth is blurred out when he swears; 1 incomplete “Son of a-” (I read there’s also a “h*ll yeah,” but I didn’t catch it)
Alcohol/Drugs: We see some bad guys drinking in their hideout; We see Lance, as a bird, drinking a martini on the yacht; The villain slices off the top of a champagne bottle and it bubbles up.
Blood/Gore: Walter jumps to reach a pole but falls. He hits his face multiple times. As a result, his eyes are black and blue with scrapes on his cheek and chin; The villain reveals his scarred face and that half of his face is partially robotic.
Violence: Walter’s gadget bounces around the room and shatters through the bottom of his mom’s mug, spilling her drink on the floor; Thugs point guns at Lance. He then beats them up and throws their guns away; A thug slams another slug’s head into a table; In passing, we see a thug wrestling another in a headlock; Lance stabs a thug with lobsters and proceeds to fights others. They shoot at him and then a bell falls on a thug behind him; Lance slow motion hits a thug in the neck; The main villain’s claw hand grabs Lance’s face. He then uses an eel to give the villain a shock to get away; A glitter bomb goes off and distracts thugs with the image of a cute cat; Lance then fights them off hand-to-hand and rides an explosion into the sky; As Lance walks through the spy lab, we see many examples of tech that cause explosions, a melting statue (which may disturb some younger kids), a whip slices off the torso of a mannequin, an laser cuts the head off another one; A scientist accidentally slams Walter with the door to his office; Lance accidentally hits Walter with a pen ray that turns him to rubber and he slams against the inside wall of the elevator; We see footage of a drone throwing a guy off a helicopter pad that’s on top of a roof (presumably killing the victim); A drone charges a guy to presumably kill him as he screams (this may scare some viewers); Lance accidentally drinks a chemical Walter is experimenting with, and it causes him to slowly change into a pigeon. As he changes, he reacts in pain to the metamorphosis; Walter hits Lance in the face with a broom; Lance, as a bird, runs into a window; A SWAT team raids Walter’s house and we see squad cars crash into each other; A car chase ensues with Walter and Pigeon Lance in the car; An oil slick coming out of their car catches on fire and we see fire streaming out the back of the car; As their car flips in slow motion, a few strange things happen, including hand sanitizer squeezing into Walter’s eyes as he screams in pain; While on a private jet, Lance hits the eject button, sucking Walter out of the jet suddenly and violently. We then see it’s all in his imagination; We see thugs with weapons hanging around the outside of a hotel; A woman hits Pigeon Lance with a computer keyboard; A rock falls on a thug’s head; Walter jumps to reach a pole but falls. He hits his face multiple times. As a result, his eyes are black and blue with scrapes on his cheek and chin; One of his gadgets goes off, spraying a large amount of gooey silly string everywhere; The villain orders a drone to drag a scientist over a cliff and drop him. He falls to his death and we hear him screaming (we see this through his cracked glasses lying on the ground). The villain then steps on his glasses, crushing them, as he walks away; A jar of test liquid pops into black goo; A building explodes and the windows shatter; We see agents shooting at a drone. Missiles explode, causing the agents to be trapped under debris; Walter throws Lance off a roof, encouraging him to fly, and he is caught by other pigeons; Walter tries to commandeer a motorcycle but it gets away from him and crashes into a wall; A motorbike crashes through a room and it catches on fire. So does an old woman’s hair; They’re chased by a big drone; The villain clotheslines Walter off the bike, then steps on his face. He spins his claw at Walter’s face and almost kills him, but Walter throws bread crumbs on the villain. He reacts confused, but then pigeons swarm him; Lance hits Walter with a tranquilizer dart to the neck; A drone grabs him by the neck and slams him up against the wall; Lance destroys a drone and we find out there are many more. We see a screen that shows many images and names of agents and then Red X’s appear over them. A drone shocks lance and he falls down; The villain squeezes Lance’s shoulder with his claw and Lance winces in pain; The villain reveals his scarred face and that half of his face is partially robotic; Two drones blow up a submarine; We see hundreds of drones swarming the nation’s capitol; There’s a big climactic fight against the drones using many of Walter’s gadgets; There’s an attack on the capitol. We see a room underneath the pool outside the capitol that is keeping the targeted agents safe. The drones start to break the glass and the water begins to seep in; Walter grabs onto the villain as he flies away and decides to save him, even if it means dying. We then see Walter falling, but he’s saved at the last moment; Walter and Lance are suddenly bagged over their heads and tossed into a car; and other sci-fi action violence.