There’s something about spy movies that, for me, makes them more interesting than the usual action-adventure film. (It’s probably the gadgets.) But despite this, I haven’t been a fan of the recent spy movies out there. I didn’t really like Spy, and I’d heard that Spectre didn’t match up to its predecessor, so eventually I turned back to an old favorite in the genre: 2001’s Spy Kids.
When I watched this for the first time, I was about the same age as the two protagonists, Carmen and Juni Cortez. This probably had something to do with why I liked it so much. Carmen and Juni discover that their parents, Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez, used to be spies who eventually got married and retired from active field work. But when Ingrid and Gregorio go on one last mission to find out what happened to some missing agents, they’re captured by Fegan Floop, and it’s Carmen and Juni who have to set out to try and rescue them. Along the way, the two siblings meet and reunite with Gregorio’s brother, Machete, and learn the importance of family.
There are a lot of things about this movie that are very tantalizing for kids. At a safe house, Carmen discovers cupboards filled with candy and some kind of instant food machine filled with kids’ favorites, like burgers and fries, as well as a lot of currency from different countries, which she takes for “safekeeping”. Later, they hide in a store and buy a bunch of cool clothes for going incognito, and near the end of the movie they get to raid their uncle’s store for all kinds of cool spy gadgets. Who wouldn’t want that life? I definitely did.
However, I found that the general aesthetic of the movie was no longer something I appreciated. You know when you’re a kid and you’re kind of delightedly grossed out by something, like boogers? That’s me and Spy Kids, except now I’m less delighted and more just grossed out. Floop, the villain for most of the film, is the stereotypical mad scientist who has a children’s TV show called Floop’s Fooglies, of which Juni is a big fan. The titular Fooglies aren’t actually people in masks, though—they’re the missing spies, and Floop put them through a machine which mutates them so that they look alien and talk backwards. It’s pretty much just body horror played for laughs. On top of that, Floop has some incompetent minions called Thumb-Thumbs, with arms, legs, and head all comprised of thumbs. They were funny for the joke “they’re all thumbs”, but otherwise, I found myself thinking too much about how all the thumb bits attached together, and when Carmen falls into a pile of unattached thumbs, it really didn’t help. (Also, there was a “sexy nurse” thumb, just, idk, for kicks.)
While I didn’t care for the body horror and thus the main part of the plot, I did still really enjoy the characters. Carmen in particular is a very relatable sort of bossy, and I liked how she was able to realize that taking care of her brother didn’t need to be a chore—it was just something that family should do. Of the two siblings, she’s clearly the more competent one and is in charge of laying out the siblings’ plans and strategies; at the same time, however, she’s allowed to make mistakes, realizing and apologizing when she’s wrong.
For his part, Juni isn’t a caricature of either the alpha male or the bumbling, nice-guy nerd: he’s sweet, empathetic, and picked on by the kids at school, and it’s his heart and his beliefs that save the day. And the kids and dad, obviously, are Latin@—something that I didn’t realize the first time I watched the movie. Director Robert Rodriguez, in a recent interview with Indiewire, revealed that this was something he had fought for:
When I was doing “Spy Kids,” the Weinsteins asked me — not that they were being jerks at all, they were just wondering — “Why are you making the characters Hispanic? It doesn’t make any sense, isn’t this supposed to be for everybody?” “Well, it’s based on my family.”
They’d just never seen it. Hollywood is very much… no one wants to do it first, because what if they screw up? If someone else does it first and it’s successful, then that’s something we can imitate. It just makes business sense for people not to constantly be putting themselves out there.
[Weinstein] said that, and it really put me on the spot to come up with a reason. “Why not just give them American names? It’s America, it will confuse people.” I said “They are American — they’re based on my family, so they’re Hispanic, but they’re going to be speaking in English. It’s going to be for everybody.” But no one had done it before, so there was nothing to point to.
And Rodriguez was correct—the characters’ names didn’t confuse me at all, and if I noticed anything about the actors it was only that they were all adorable. Re-watching the movie as an adult with a working knowledge of Spanish was like discovering another layer to the characters and locations. It just goes to show that not only does representation help to normalize different cultures, but also that kids are far more than capable of empathizing with characters who come from cultures other than their own.
If you want a fun kids’ spy movie for an afternoon, I’d still highly recommend Spy Kids. However, if you’re easily grossed out by body horror and weirdness, I’d say give this one a pass.