With Jumanji: The Next Level and Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker dominating the family movie market (as well as the entire box-office), it is an odd time to release another movie aimed to attract family audiences. Yet that is what Twentieth Century Fox is trying to do with the animated action/comedy Spies in Disguise. Maybe waiting a couple of extra weeks would have been beneficial for its commercial prospects. It runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle just due to bad timing. That is a shame because it is actually pretty fun, with good voice work and some clever gags. It is formulaic, sure, and never tries for the depth or originality of the best family entertainment. Still, it achieves the goal of any popcorn movie: it kept my attention throughout and left me feeling like I got my money’s worth of amusement.
Lance Sterling is a James Bond-esque superspy who effortlessly saves the world on a regular basis using his wits along with a bevy of remarkable gadgets. Walter is a scientist who is looked down on by his colleagues for his unconventional ideas about what would be useful for a spy in the field. When Lance gets into trouble, he goes to Walter who has been working on new tech that could make its user disappear. Lance finds out the hard way that Walter was being metaphorical: upon ingesting it, Lance is transformed into a pigeon.
During the first section, the humor comes from Lance’s arrogance and Walter’s weirdness. Once the plot kicks in, the jokes are mostly centered on Lance’s severe discomfort in his new form. I was surprised at how often the jokes landed. I did not laugh especially hard, though I chuckled and smiled a decent amount. It is a spy parody mixed with a mismatched-buddy comedy, incorporating the importance of friendship and being yourself. The only element that feels truly fresh is Walter’s pacifism, which gets laughs, but is never made fun of. That philosophical difference gives their relationship a little more intrigue than the basic “cool kid/nerd” dynamic, even if the movie does not really take the time to explore it. It is more interested in goofy pigeon jokes and adventure.
Spies in Disguise (94 minutes, plus the end credits) is able to have its cake and eat it, too. It pokes fun at spy tropes, then uses some of them, usually with a silly spin. Lance does engage in a couple of fight scenes and several chases, none of them offering anything particularly original or exciting. However, they do work because they are necessary to the plot. The juxtaposition between human Lance and pigeon Lance adds a little suspense. The story is clearly based around the gimmick. Thankfully, that gimmick is used so consistently, with efficient setups and payoffs, that it became a strength instead of a crutch. What sets this apart from similar plots? The protagonist is a pigeon. As it turns out, they ride that simple hook to moderate success for the whole runtime.
I was unsure what to expect from Spies in Disguise. The trailers made it look like a goofy comedy that took its action seriously. It appeared confused. The final result is more focused than that. A production that knows exactly what it is can be quite entertaining, even with its limitations. It uses its central concept and the talents of Will Smith, channeling his cocky charm as Lance Sterling, and Tom Holland, bringing Peter Parker’s more awkward characteristics to Walter, to create something reasonably enjoyable. Considering its competition, I do not anticipate this making a significant dent at the box-office. Regardless, in a year of good family movies, this sneaks into my top ten in that specific category. While it may not be that memorable, my guess is kids will like it well enough and their parents will not be bored.
3¼ out of 5
Will Smith as Lance Sterling
Tom Holland as Walter Beckett
Rashida Jones as Marcy Kappel
Karen Gillan as Eyes
DJ Khaled as Ears
Ben Mendelsohn as Killian
Directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Screenplay by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor