Spies in Disguise (2019)
Super Spy. Super Fly.
Although marketed as ‘being from the studio that brought us Ferdinand (2017),’ Spies in Disguise is the first offering from animation house Blue Sky — responsible for the multiple Ice Age distractions — to be distributed by Disney since the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in March of this year. Loosely based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short Pigeon: Impossible, Spies in Disguise features all the hallmarks of a Walt Disney toon, but is more in line with the work of Sony Pictures Animation in terms of artwork, gags, narrative, and style. Think of Spies as an update of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) but with a feathery twist, melded with a 007-type Saturday Morning cartoon. And if that sounds like your jam, you’ll have a blast.
After a kickass opening sequence set in Japan, introducing us to Will Smith’s ‘super fly’ secret agent Lance Sterling, aka ‘the world’s most awesome spy’ — a scene that has some serious Kill Bill vibes and rivals many of the action beats in Pixar’s The Incredibles films — Spies in Disguise kinda mellows out. Well, up until animators-tuned-filmmakers Nick Bruno and Troy Quane in their feature directorial debuts, and scribe Brad Copeland who’s joined by first-time screenwriter Lloyd Taylor, go full goofball with the secret agent pigeon premise — that’s where this animated action-comedy truly takes flight. You see, on the aforementioned mission, Sterling is stumped when one of his gadgets turns out to be a kitty glitter bomb rather than an, um actual explosive — which winds up being remarkably effective at softening and incapacitating a bunch of hardened Yakooza goons. This leads the suave yet arrogant Sterling to visit Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland), the socially inept wunderkind behind the oddball tech working in the science department at HQ, located in D.C., both men part of a fictitious U.S. government agency known fittingly as the Agency.
Of course, Beckett is busy wasting the organizations funds and recourses working on useless nonlethal contraptions like the inflatable hug (a seemingly unusable protective balloon) and some super-serious silly-string, sticky enough to stop any crook in their tracks; the kid, as it turns out, is an unashamedly outspoken pacifist, and firmly believes that ‘violence begets violence,’ aiming to change the crime-fighting game from the inside with his dove doodads. The hard-bitten Sterling, though, knowing full-well the ruthlessness of the adversaries he’s faced in the past, claims he needs ‘fire to fight fire,’ and thus gives the neurotic boy genius the boot, believing that Beckett’s views and ideas are a liability to agents out in the field.
The tables, however, very quickly turn when Sterling finds himself the lead suspect of an internal affairs investigation led by no-nonsense security forces agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones), who accuses our hero of theft and treason. Sterling knows that he’s been set up — so too do the audience, as we learn that the Bond-type baddie, Killian, a technology-based terrorist with a bionic claw for a left arm (Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn doing his ‘bad guy’ thing), can digitally augment his face, replicating and framing Sterling as revenge for a past incident. (It would have been interesting if the villain’s identity were kept a secret, allowing viewers to try and piece together the mystery before a third act reveal, but I guess this ain’t that kinda movie.)
Anyhow, unexpectedly showing up at Beckett’s home to seek aid, and disappear for a while — Walter is working on a biodynamic concealment device before he’s dismissed — Sterling accidentally gulps down an experimental liquid, which, to his disgust, transforms him into a ‘rat with wings’ — a pigeon. With no antidote to undo the uncanny makeover, the pair are forced to team up, going rouge to clear Sterling’s name. But this is all new to Beckett, who’s tasked with trying to turn the now not-so-big Willie back into a human while navigating the world of espionage, on the run from government heavies, and a cybernetic madman with an army of weaponized drones.
And it’s a lot of fun. From the colorful globe-trotting chaos (we visit places like Mexico and Venice, Italy) to the excellently choreographed, high-octane action set pieces, each steered with zany energy, Spies in Disguise is more than just a catchy title. For starters, filmmakers manage to drop a handful of anatomical pigeon facts and info into the proceedings, and the results are side-splitting — there’s a hilarious ongoing quip about a cloaca (you’ll never look at a pigeon the same way again). And there’s no shortage of visual gags either; most are brought about by Lance, who’s learning how to spread his wings and make use of his new bird-like abilities (such as a pigeon’s 340-degree vision), grudgingly recruiting a bunch of loopy feathered friends along the way — kids will love the character of Crazy Eyes, a bird-brained lunatic with a lollipop stuck to his noggin who’s constantly vomiting.
But this is a spy caper, too, borrowing heavily from the 007 playbook; it gives us those genre-defying elements we’ve come to expect from our spy yarns, such as tricked out cars, cool and bizarre intelligence doohickeys, and a slick yet silly James Bond-esque opening credit montage set to the song ‘Freak of Nature,’ performed by Mark Ronson & Dodgr — but this one contains a heap of bird silhouettes. And there are lots of witty callbacks and meta-jokes for grown-ups — we get a ripper 50 Shades of Grey reference, and in a kid’s movie, too! There’s also a great little running gag about an Eastern drama, which I very much appreciated.
The film is thematically rich, too, commenting on the dangers of hypermasculinity — we see how Sterling’s mucho retaliation methods make monsters out of men — and how cooperation and companionship, no matter how challenging, always win the day — discussions about kinder conflict resolution approaches really stand out. There’s also a nice narrative-thread about learning to cope with grief, and the many ways that people manage, both our heroes having lost loved ones in their lives, though dealing with the hurt and anger quite differently.
The animation by Blue Sky is simply next level — it’s clear that the studio has upped the ante as the film’s many exotic locales are exceedingly lifelike. The bird designs are a mix of cute and ridiculous, animators emphasizing a pigeon’s movements (such as head bobbing while walking) and appearance (giving them beadier eyes and making them plumper) to appeal to the young’uns. The human designs are pretty much-accentuated caricatures of the performers, which I kind of dug, these brilliantly brought to life by the spirited voicework of the film’s stars.
Though being the second movie released in 2019 (in the States anyway) in which a blue Will Smith forgets his partner’s name (Aladdin) and the second to have Smith fight an evil clone version of himself (Gemini Man), he nails his role here, infusing the egotistical Sterling with the right amount of charm and charisma — he’s a bit of a jerk, but a lovable one. And he’s pretty funny, too. Similarly, Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), will have you quacking as the often-awkward tech-savvy prodigy Beckett, the chemistry, spark, and banter between the two leads right on target — I’d honestly love to see a Smith-Holland starring live-action movie.
In terms of support, everybody looks to be having a good time, the performers injecting the action with a sense of delight. Masi Oka, The Meg (2018), makes his mark as bulging antagonistic Japanese arms dealer Katsu Kimura, who’s given a standout slapstick sequence where he’s temporarily transformed into jelly via one of Beckett’s bonkers gizmos. Then there’s Karen Gillan, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), and DJ Khaled, who voice Eyes, a spectacles-sporting spectral analysis specialist, and Ears, a headphone-wearing communications expert, respectively, both agents aiding Kappel — they’re fun little additions to her strict special forces squad.
Yes, Spies in Disguise is, to some degree, predictable — we all know where it’s headed — but this bubbly bird buddy-comedy has enough laughs, aviation hijinks, weirdness, and superspy action to carry the day — it’s surprisingly more original than it looks. And it’s a sturdy school holiday filler, that’s for sure, enjoyable enough to keep adults entertained and kids glued to their seats for the film’s 102-minute duration. It might not linger once it’s over, but hopefully, some of its messages will, and that’s probably enough. Oh, the soundtrack is pretty tweet, too!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner