REVIEW – ‘Spies in Disguise’ offers just enough here to keep your little ones mildly enthused

It’s been a weird year at the cinema for many reasons. Even still, an animated film featuring a super-spy, voiced by Will Smith, who accidentally morphs into a pigeon is probably the last thing you expected in 2019. After mixed reactions to his, er, unique take on Genie in Aladdin and the critical and commercial disaster that was Gemini Man (you’d already forgotten that was thing, hadn’t you?), Smith throws the dice for the third time this year.

With Blue Sky Studios’ Spies in Disguise, Smith proves the third time is somewhat the charm, but considering the low bar of his efforts this year, that’s hardly saying much. After three (!) release date changes, this harmless family flick flutters into cinemas this holiday season, hoping parents are looking for something other than Frozen 2 to dump their kids in front of.

Loaded with goofy slapstick physical comedy and bombastic action sequences, there should be enough here to keep your little ones mildly enthused for 102 minutes. However, despite some terrific voiceover work and lively animation, Spies in Disguises suffers from an entirely predictable plot, thinly-written characters, and an overall aesthetic we’ve seen elsewhere in far superior fashion.

Beginning with a flashback prologue, we meet adorable young wannabe scientist Walter Beckett, who’s constantly tinkering with his latest gadget inventions, boosted by the support of his doting police officer mother, Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan, in little more than a cameo). Mocked at school for his nerdy nature, Wendy encourages her son to embrace his geeky side because “the world needs weird.”

Flashing forward to present-day Japan, “the world’s most awesome spy” Lance Sterling (Smith) is carrying out his latest mission with his trademark suave style. Constantly refusing the help of others, Sterling prefers to “fly solo,” even if that means single-handedly battling his way through the 70 Yakuza henchmen of his arch-enemy Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a tech-terrorist with a powerful left bionic arm.

When Sterling attempts to utilise his trusty arsenal of weapons, he’s bewildered to find they’ve been replaced by an exploding bomb of glitter and a hologram of a meowing kitten that bewitches his enemies into submission. After barely making it out alive, Sterling confronts the tech-wizards back at his base, where he discovers a now-teenage Beckett (Tom Holland) is the one responsible for the sneaky switcheroo.

With a penchant for non-violence, Beckett believes his inventions could revolutionise the way spies do business, which, naturally, promptly gets him fired. Shortly thereafter, Sterling is hauled into the office of agency director Joy Jenkins (Reba McEntire), where internal affairs officer Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) accuses him of stealing a database of every secret agent on the planet, care of some damning footage framing him for the theft.

On the run and with nowhere to turn, Sterling begs Beckett for assistance, leading to the teenage scientist to suggest using his “biodynamic concealment” invention, which should turn the super-spy completely invisible. But when Sterling ingests Beckett’s first attempt at the formula, he instead transforms into a pigeon. With agents on the hunt for Sterling, being an unassuming pigeon soon proves to be the perfect disguise for Sterling to potentially clear his name and save the day.

You can essentially guess the comedic elements that occur once Sterling transforms, as he’s forced to accept his newfound avian body and the physical limitations that come with being a bird. Sterling also attracts the attention of a flock of actual pigeons, the portly Jeff, the wacky Crazy Eyes, and the amorous Lovey, who soon form his gang of helpers on his quest to bring down Killian.

Lovey takes a particular shine to the Sterling, constantly canoodling against him and fluffing a ring of brown feathers around her neck that resemble a fur shawl. Yes, this film essentially contains a pigeon love story, which is strangely rather endearing. It’s best not to think about the biology and science behind the romance. Sterling is endlessly debonair as a man, therefore he’s evidently equally as dashing in the form of a pigeon.

In terms of the action, Spies in Disguise places its series of set pieces in a cavalcade of international destinations, as Sterling and Beckett zoom around the globe with stops in Washington D.C, Mexico, and Venice. There’s a hefty helping of fun to be found in these bombastic, beautifully-animated sequences, with all the explosions and mayhem that’s entirely expected of such a spy thriller. But these moments are diminished by some rather subpar sound mixing work that simply doesn’t rattle the cinema as it should.

Much of this film achingly borrows from The Incredibles franchise, particularly the classic spy visual aesthetic, the Bond-esque opening titles sequence, and the brass-heavy score from Theodore Shapiro. The comparisons to Pixar’s gold standard of animated action films are unavoidable, but it’s disappointing to see Spies in Disguise simply follow the leader instead of paving its own unique path.

The lack of originality doesn’t end there. Oddball pigeon Crazy Eyes (who inexplicably has a lollipop permanently attached to his head) feels like a straight rip-off of other wacky, oversized-eyed animated bird characters such as Becky from Finding Dory or Hei Hei in Moana. And there’s a humourous slow-motion car crash scene that’s straight out of Finding Dory, merely with a different retro song choice (The Carpenter’s “Close to You”) to play over the action within the vehicle.

While the thinly-drawn characters all fall into lazy archetypes, they’re thankfully brought to life by our two leads voice actors who genuinely liven up this film. Smith brings his usual ultra-cool vibe and limitless confidence to Sterling, echoing his performances from Independence Day and Men in Black. Holland can perform the nerdy teenager with his eyes closed, and he’s merely offering his endearing Peter Parker persona in animated form. But it works in the Spider-Man films and it works here too. The two make a terrific pairing, thanks to their effortless chemistry and charming burgeoning partnership.

Sadly, Spies in Disguise wastes great talent like Jones and Mendelsohn in terribly thankless roles. Marcy is little more than an exposition machine, whose sole purpose is to push the chase along to its next glamorous locale. Mendelsohn has proven himself adept at playing the villain, but he’s nothing more than a bad guy out for world domination without a shred of deeper motivation. It’s startling how similar McEntire sounds to Holly Hunter, further pushing the comparisons to The Incredibles. And the less said about an agent voiced by DJ Khaled (who does nothing but spout off one-liners such as “That was tight!” and “These my new kicks, man!”), the better.

When all is said and done, Spies in Disguise is a rather strange little film, filled with some genuinely bizarre events and dialogue. At one point, Beckett blurts out, “I’m going to science all over your face,” and you could feel the adults in the room universally cringe as one. Yes, that line of dialogue exists in a children’s animated film. Then again, this film begins with the mantra that the world needs weird, and it’s sure intent on embracing the outlandish nature of its premise.

There’s a deeper message hiding beneath all the weirdness, namely the foils of solitude and the value of teamwork and friendship. And kids who love science will certainly walk away from Spies in Disguise feeling entirely validated of their passion for gadgets and gizmos. There’s nothing particularly fresh about this rather cumbersome tale, but there are certainly worse ways your kids could be spending their time this holiday season than watching the Will Smith animated pigeon movie.

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled
Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Michael J. Travers
Screenplay: Brad Copeland, Lloyd Taylor
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: 1st January 2020 (Australia)