In Spies in Disguise, Tom Holland plays an orphaned teen armed with a fistful of gadgets. He’s awkward, but enthusiastic. His heroism is motivated by a tragic backstory. In short, he’s Spider-Man without all the web-slinging. While the actor may have found himself as Hollywood’s new go-to nerdy youth (he’ll play another in Pixar’s Onward, released next year), this kind of familiarity is all part of Blue Sky Studios’ larger game plan. The animation outfit – now absorbed into Disney – has been churning out films that have been exclusively colourful, cheery, and safe. That includes four Ice Ages, two Rios, and one film where John Cena voices a gentle-hearted bull. Spies in Disguise is no different.
In this espionage-themed caper – a kind of cross between James Bond and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – Holland is paired with Will Smith in full hero mode. Smith plays Lance Sterling, a super-spy so beloved by his colleagues that he can’t walk into work without hearing a chorus of cheers. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno surround the character with all the trademarks of the genre. There are slick opening titles, a showdown with the yakuza, and an action sequence set in a five-star Mexico resort.
When Lance is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he looks to an unexpected source for help – Walter, a Q-like gadget inventor whose belief in non-violence hasn’t made him popular with the rest of the bureau. “You can do more by bringing people together than blowing them up,” he preaches.
Spies in Disguise dedicates a surprising amount of its running time to debates on pacificism versus militarism. Lance and Walter clash because the former is a “take-no-prisoners” 007 type and the latter prefers hugs, glitter, and kittens as a way to disarm enemies. “Evil doesn’t care that you’re nice,” Lance snaps back. Ultimately, it’d be foolish to apply any of this to real-world geopolitical discourse, since the metaphors are vague and ultimately drowned out by the flashy set pieces. But it’s always refreshing to see a family film at least try to start a conversation, even if doesn’t have the nerve to finish it.
And then there are the pigeons. One of Walter’s inventions is a formula for “biodynamic concealment”, which would help spies do their work entirely undetected. He’s been testing it on his own pet pigeon, but Lance accidentally ingests the results and transforms into a tiny, now-furious bird. It’s a cute idea that offers plenty of opportunity for slapstick humour, especially when Lance attracts his own flock of feathered misfits – all with no idea of what personal space means.
Holland and Smith make for an appealing duo (one is nervous and eager, the other is confident and cynical), while the rest of the characters are fairly well fleshed out. Ben Mendelsohn might be on villain auto-drive, but he’s still sinisterly effective. Rashida Jones appears as an exasperated internal affairs agent, with Karen Gillan and DJ Khaled as her sprightly tech team. Spies in Disguise might play it safe, but at least it’s not cutting corners.
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