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Spies in Disguise
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by Jay Seaver

"Fresh Prince of CIA."
3 stars

A Christmas Day release doesn't normally feel like something being dumped, but Disney buying Fox leads to some weird situations, like what to do with this movie - heck, what to do with the entire division that made it. It's a bit too good to be buried but also not the sort of thing that's a priority for the combined company. It's big, loud, and slick, but the sort of thing that falls in between being a movie for kids and one for adults rather than encompassing both.

It starts by introducing what's already an odd mismatch - Lance Sterling (voice of Will Smith) is a James Bond-esque super-spy with a tendency to treat every situation like the chance for an action set-piece, while Walter Beckett (voice of Tom Holland) is an Agency science prodigy barely out of his teens developing more humane gadgets for the likes of Sterling to use. Not that Sterling wants anything to do with that until he's framed by a former enemy (voice of Ben Mendelsohn) who has face-changing tech in addition to a robot arm, at which point he wants Walter's next-generation camouflage invention to help him chase down the villain while staying ahead of an internal affairs team (voices of Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan, and DJ Khaled). When it turns him into a pigeon, he wants it even less, especially because that means Walter has to tag along to synthesize an antidote.

Lots of family-targeted movies have an odd combination of grown-up material and kid-friendly whimsy, and while there are further stretches than the sort of spy-movie action that leaves a substantial body count and turning people into pigeons, it's sort of a weird combo: Have the kids seen the movies that Spies in Disguise is spoofing, and are the people who do like that sort of thing going to go for a genuinely goofy take? Is either group going to laugh that hard at jokes about Korean dramas or punning off the name "50 Shades of Gray" with anything more than "I recognize that"? Part of the joy of cartooning is the ability to indulge in pure randomness, but that scattershot approach sometimes means that you've got to have a fairly broad range of pop-culture fandom to laugh continually, and also tends to make the moments when the filmmakers are a little more serious dramatic bits on the same level as the comic ones, rather than a story that can hold the movie together.

It's kind of fun regardless of that; there's plenty of fast-moving action that must be overwhelming when not seen in 3D - for this sort of animated adventure where the climax has a lot of things flying around, that presentation helps to separate the layers of effects rather than letting everything get mashed together - although directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane are able to choreograph that sort of action better than a lot of their live-action contemporaries. The movie favors long, skinny limbs and faces that express one emotion really well even if they're not terribly flexible, though they don't quite seem stuck on one expression. The filmmakers do nice work in cartoon-ifying real places to make them feel genuine and familiar but not limiting, and the increasingly eccentric spy tech is fun, with the audience able to get a real good look at any individual piece before it's flying all over the place.

Performance-wise, most of the movie is built around Will Smith doing his thing, and if not for Aladdin earlier this year, it would feel like it's been a while since audiences have actually seen the loose, relaxed persona that made him a star in the first place, and it's enjoyable enough to make one wonder why he hasn't tried to mix more of that type of role in with the more challenging ones. He's ably supported by a voice cast full of good character actors: Ben Mendelsohn could do this sort of villain without breaking a sweat, Rashida Jones pairs well enough with Karen Gillan & DJ Khaled but has the most spark when her character gets to loosen up toward the end, and Reba McIntyre is a neat choice to play the head of the Agency (though one wonders if she was like getting Holly Hunter on a budget). Tom Holland injects the right quaver into Walter's voice to not go overboard but still let the more comedic bits work.

There are a lot of times when if feels like <I>Spies in Disguise</I> could use a moment to breathe, noodle around with some goofy thing or other a bit more, or otherwise just track down which of the dozen things it's trying to do really works and figure out how to make it work even better, but every frame is valuable in animation. That doesn't just apply to the jokes; it's also too busy to let its well-intentioned violence begets violence message sink in for more than a moment or two, for instance, but seems earnest enough about it. It's not a bad choice for an afternoon with kids who have already seen "Star Wars" and "Frozen II" this Christmas vacation.

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originally posted: 12/30/19 07:51:20
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  25-Dec-2019 (PG)
  DVD: 10-Mar-2020


  DVD: 10-Mar-2020

Directed by
  Nick Bruno
  Troy Quane

Written by
  Brad Copeland

  Will Smith
  Tom Holland
  Karen Gillan
  Ben Mendelsohn
  Rashida Jones
  Masi Oka

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