Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has a habit of striking gold with his adult-oriented films. His family films, however, have always been hit or miss.
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The first “Spy Kids” a decade ago surprised Rodriguez fans with an extremely talented and energetic, if not unexpected, break from his typical body-count fare. The quality dipped with the sequels and hit major lows with his other kids’ titles. Now he’s added a new chapter to his most famous franchise and it captures some of that quality back, but just barely.
“Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” is not exactly a reboot but may still be an attempt to start a new series within this spy world, as a new family of super spies is thrown into the ring.
This time it’s a soon-to-be-mom, played by Jessica Alba, who introduces us to Rodriguez’s specialized gadget-filled world. She’s also related to the Cortez family from the originals. She takes out one last bad guy before retiring to spend time with her new family.
But the movie isn’t called “Spy Mom.” It’s her young stepchildren (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) who take center stage. There’s no need to go further into the plot as the director has already told it thrice before. The kids use hyper-technology and their own cleverness to stop a sympathetic villain who ultimately learns the right of way. I’d be very surprised if I just ruined the ending for anyone.
Now the question remains if kids will like this. My guess would be yes. The ones in the theater certainly seemed to. There are a few reasons this may be the case while “Spy Kids 3” sank terribly.
One reason is the new kids themselves. They don’t start out as superheroes. They’re ordinary kids. They’re also not standard movie children. Unlike most onscreen brothers and sisters, the girl is the troublemaker while her brother is more of the straight man.
They also use the talents they have. Little Cecil wears hearing aids, which turn out to be an effective crime-fighting tool.
I think these kids are more relatable to the younger audiences than the original Cortezes. They seem more like the type most kids, especially in Juneau, are used to encountering. For example these kids wear every day clothes rather than the school uniforms that may have disconnected a few younger viewers in 2001.
There are two other bright spots. One is a robotic dog assistant who is voiced by Ricky Gervais. He’s hokey all right, but darn it if Gervais isn’t funny even in PG mode.
The other good part is a tremendous improvement of a villain. This one is themed around time and is played excellently by Jeremy Piven. Like Sylvester Stallone as the villain in the last installment, Piven plays multiple versions of himself on screen. Unlike Stallone, though, he brings a bit more of a threat to the bad guy role. Of course, being a “Spy Kids” movie, he’s not overly evil. He can learn.
“Spy Kids 4” is a definite improvement over the last, and it’s good to see Rodriguez taking note of earlier mistakes. Still, some of them remain. The most common error he makes in all his family films — except that first one-is dumbing it down. The kids in his family scripts always talk like they’re 5-year-olds in a cartoon. The adults aren’t much better but they aren’t meant to be taken as seriously. It’s as if Rodriguez believes every child who sees his films talks the same way.
One of the best characteristics to judge a family film on is if it’s also enjoyable for adults. This one teeters. The inane dialogue and bad puns get to be too much. On the other hand, Rodriguez’s obvious energy and visual flair are so fun they really get you into it.
This is the same flair that he’s broken borders with in more adult films. He has a love of filmmaking that shows he wants to have some fun with it. He loves to do new gimmicks with his films too. For example, “Spy Kids 3” brought back the old-style red and blue 3-D glasses and had visual cues in the film for when to put them on. This was before every other film not based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel was being shown in 3-D. Here his gimmick is “Aroma-Scope.” The theater hands over a card of scratch and sniff spots and the movie tells you which ones to try and when. Again, this is hokey. But it also shows this guy wants you to have fun.