Remember when Robert Rodriguez first announced plans to release Spy Kids
? The idea was comical. The director’s resume, at the time, was littered with stylishly violent genre fare, from the bloody Desperado
to the bloodier From Dusk ‘til Dawn
. Sure, Rodriguez worked with teenagers in The Faculty
, but they ended up either dead or infected by an alien virus by the end credits. What horrors did Rodriguez have planned for his adolescent 007s?
Well, as it turns out, Rodriguez has a vivid imagination fueled by interactive play with his own children, which powered two creative Spy Kids movies and one misstep we’ll choose to blame on Sylvester Stallone. And a decade after Rodriguez launched his Spy Kids franchise, the director’s resume is now evenly divided between hard-hitting muscle epics (Machete, Sin City) and candy-coated visual roller coasters for the whole family (The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3D, Shorts).
With a fourth Spy Kids set to hit theaters, we figured now was a good time to introduce the young ones in your family to the young spies in the Cortez family. So, let’s DVR episodes of “Floop’s Fooglies,” hire Cheech Marin as our babysitter, pick fights with life-sized thumbs, grab the world’s smallest camera from Danny Trejo, and figure out when you can watch Robert Rodriguez’s original Spy Kids with your kids.
The Discussion: License To Kid
I think the term “spy” is ingrained in every child’s DNA.
I can’t recall my boys ever watching a spy cartoon growing up, unless you count Special Agent Oso (which I don’t). But one afternoon while playing, the two of them casually started sneaking up on people, hiding, creeping and crawling around the house as if they’d been doing it their entire lives. “We’re spies,” P.J. told me, and that was that.
So when I thought they were ready to witness some “real” spies in action, Rodriguez’s Spy Kids was the default choice. Cortez kids Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) roughly were the same age as my children. And from what I remembered, Rodriguez’s “elaborate” plot was streamlined enough for my kids to follow.
Now, Spy Kids wasn’t P.J. and Brendan’s first exposure to undercover agents, if I’m being honest. My kids both got hooked on a Playstation game based off of Disney’s G-Force, and I let them watch that hamster/gerbil/guinea pig monstrosity when it showed up in the mail one afternoon. Yes, I still regret it.
But when it came to their first exposure to inventive gadgets, dangerous villains, secret missions and covert identities, we used Spy Kids as our launch pad and found that the film really set the stage for the spy genre with ease.
The main reason it worked so well? Well, there are precious few red flags, which we’ll pick apart next.
Red Flags: For Your (Child’s) Eyes Only
Rodriguez committed to telling a story kids would appreciate and parents could support, and he succeeded with Spy Kids. As a result, the red flags are mild. They’re more like pink flags, if anything.
Carmen and Juni’s parents are held captive by Alan Cumming’s Floop, the host of a deranged children’s television program, but the threat level in Spy Kids is soft and the kids always remains one step ahead of their adult counterparts, giving young audience members plenty to cheer about.
On a side note, how fantastic is Rodriguez’s concept that freaky kids’ programming somehow is a front for evil minions? Who reading this hasn’t watched Yo Gabba Gabba and suspected families secretly were being brainwashed by a sinister spy organization? And right after re-watching Spy Kids, I wanted to play every Wiggles CD we own backwards to listen for hidden messages from Australian spies who don’t really believe fruit salad is so yummy, yummy.
As for Floop and his mutated secret agents, they are mildly disturbing, what with their distorted faces and stretched out grins. But Rodriguez stayed true to his approach that Kids always appeals to kids, and the questionable violence and language in the film always is outshined by the director’s creativity and childish humor.
There’s another aspect of the first Spy Kids that sets this initial installment in a class above its sequels, and we’ll start there in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: The Spy (Family) Who Loved Me
Rodriguez’s first Spy Kids basks in the warm message of family unity and love that the filmmaker no doubt wanted to impart to his own children. He has said in interviews that he made Spy Kids for his own kids, and the love he feels for them infuses every scene (even if it’s being communicated by professional actors Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino).
But before the cozy moral or the story, there are serious issues. “What’s so special about being a Cortez?” Juni asks his father. You can imagine virtually any kid Juni’s age looking at his pedestrian parents and wondering the exact same thing. Emphasize with your children the benefits that come with being part of a close-knit family when you sit down to watch the film together.
It’s also wonderful watching Carmen and Juni’s sibling rivalry transition into teamwork, particularly in the scene where they jet-pack away from Teri Hatcher’s evil spy and Juni plummets to near death.
Second side note of this week’s column: Man, is that a bad example of Rodriguez’s cheap green screen, which would continue to be a problem on his low-budget kid movies. Spy Kids looks like it was made on a shoestring, but the whole endeavor’s so much fun that you hardly ever care. That wasn’t the case with the sequels, Shark Boy, or Shorts, which looked and acted badly.
Still, Spy Kids can open the door to some great discussions about siblings collaborating (and cooperating) for the benefit of the family. We talked about rising to the challenge when parents are indisposed, so to speak. We laughed at Rodriguez’s sense of humor, marveled at the chemistry between Vega and Sabara, and did our best to duplicate the great devices Carmen and Juni used on their mission using wristwatches, tools and toys around the house.
The first Spy Kids boasts the best of Rodriguez’s adolescent imagination, coupled with the largest doses of his heart. Subsequent Spy Kids films would up the ante when it came to high-tech devices and formidable foes. But the sequels couldn’t hold a candle to the emotional pull of the original, which can (and should) be enjoyed by every member of your family.
The original Spy Kids is suitable for kids of all ages, though your children probably will have to be 5 before they’re able to stay with a feature-length film like this. At 88 minutes, Spy Kids rarely lags, but the exposition will fly over the youngest kid’s head as he or she patiently waits for the next exciting spy sequence.
The first Spy Kids also has the best all-around messages aimed at kids and parents. It speaks to adolescent independence as well as the importance of family togetherness. It touches on legacy, and the triumph of good over evil. But most of all, it remembers to have fun. It’s an enjoyable diversion the whole family can watch, and it’s bound to stimulate your child’s imagination as it revs up that “spy” gene I’m convinced every kid receives when he enters this world.
For previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Lucas and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.