Rated PG - Running Time: 1:28 - Released 3/30/01

If you thought that all kids' movies except big-budget cartoons have to be of low quality, well . . . April Fool. Spy Kids, written and directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, The Faculty), is full of action and beautifully eye-catching effects, but it's also refreshingly well-written and intelligent for a film aimed at the pre-teen market. Its two young stars, Alexa Vega (who already has quite an impressive list of credits for a 13-year-old, including Ghosts of Mississippi and The Deep End Of The Ocean) and Daryl Sabara (in his first big-screen appearance) represent perhaps the film's weakest point; their performances are surprisingly dull considering the exciting spy/fantasy situations they repeatedly find themselves in. But their lackluster deliveries do not seriously hamper the film's overall effect, as there is enough heft to Rodriguez's script, not to mention cool gadgetry and colorful scenery, to keep the interest level high. Another point in its favor is the calibre of the adult cast, featuring some not-too-shabby names for a kids' movie: Antonio Banderas, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, and even a surprise cameo by hot commodity George Clooney.

We meet bored pre-teenager Carmen Cortez (Vega) and her ineffectual little brother Juni (Sabara) during an average day in their suburban home. But we soon learn that their parents, Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) are far from average; in fact, until they retired and settled down, they were the two hottest international spies in the business. What made it even more exciting was that they were on opposite sides. Despite having sworn off espionage, however, Gregorio and Ingrid can't resist taking one more case, and the kids are left with an uncle (Cheech Marin). But soon Gregorio and Ingrid find themselves captured by the maniacal Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), producer and host of the hit kids' TV show "Floop's Fooglies," and only Carmen and Juni can save them from his bizarre island hideaway.

In many ways, this film resembles 1971's Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, not only because it features a quirky recluse locked in a fantastic palace full of surprises, but because of its wildly colorful visual design which recollects the trippy, psychedelic styles of Peter Max or Yellow Submarine. Cumming's performance as Floop is lighthearted and fun, as is that of Tony Shalhoub as his minion, Minion, who turns out to be the real bad guy. Banderas and Gugino are sexy and savvy as the parental spies, but can do the schtick when the need arises. There are some rather dark aspects to the story, and younger children might be nonplussed by its occasionally nightmarish imagery, but as the final reel winds down we get the traditional message about those pure of heart succeeding in the end, including former villains who finally see the light. Overall, Spy Kids is suitably fun, exciting, and clever enough to appeal to moviegoers both young and old. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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