Movie Review: Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Credit Robert Rodriguez with not taking the easy route and turning his third "Spy Kids" movie into a clone of the first two. And then sigh.
After all, "Spy Kids" (2001) and "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" (2002) revived the live-action family film (the kind not based on a best-selling book series or amusement-park ride) by plunging a sister and brother into their parents' world of high-tech, gadget-happy espionage. The movies are witty, wacky, warm and inventive, with writer/director/everything else Rodriguez tossing elements of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," the James Bond movies and Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation into a candy-coated centrifuge.
"Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" occupies a different world from its predecessors . Most obviously, the new movie is set primarily inside a video game rather than a pixilated version of reality. The artificial environment lets Rodriguez take maximum advantage of 3-D technology, the movie's driving force.
But even the outside world feels different here and not necessarily in good ways. The first two "Spy Kids" movies managed to preach family togetherness without ever seeming preachy, so it's puzzling that when "Spy Kids 3-D" opens, the Cortez family is fractured, and apparently has been for months, with no indication that anything is awry.
The family also shared the first movies' adventures that was much of the point. Here, young Juni (Daryl Sabara) must carry the bulk of the story. Still angry about being dressed down by the OSS spy organization in "Spy Kids 2," the 11-year-old boy has branched off to become a solo gumshoe (Rodriguez supplies the obligatory, literal gag shot), complete with a film-noir voiceover that's incongruous with the rest of the film's style.
Soon he learns that his older sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega), has become trapped on Level 4 of the new "Game Over" video game, designed by the madman Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone, amusing as he embodies the character's multiple personalities) to imprison its young players. Juni's mission: enter the game to rescue her.
Sabara is a highly likable kid performer; much of the first movie's charm stemmed from his and Vega's lack of polish and precociousness. But Sabara remains the less natural actor of the two, so it's not to his (or our) advantage that Carmen doesn't appear in the flesh until well into the movie's second half. Meanwhile, the parents, still played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, make only cameo appearances in the finale despite retaining top billing.
The actor who shares the most screen time with Juni is Ricardo Montalban as the grandfather, whom Juni selects as his "lifeline" to join him in the game. The wheelchair-bound gramps gets super-powered legs; his action scenes as well as his reflections on his disability gain poignancy given that the actor himself is confined to a wheelchair after complications from multiple back surgeries.
The "Spy Kids" movies have allowed Rodriguez to exercise his playful muscles, and the new one is no exception. It opens with Alan Cumming's Floop kiddie-show host offering a pop-up book primer on the "Spy Kids" characters plus tongue-in-cheek instruction on how to respond to the flashy on-screen "Glasses on!" and "Glasses off!" commands. The 3-D sequences, which take place inside the video game, make up most of the movie.
Rodriguez, who also served as the movie's production designer and cinematographer, designed the video game scenes to capitalize on the technology. Not only are bolts and pieces of machinery constantly flying the audience's way, but the scenes boast an exaggerated depth of field, as if the screen had become an extravagant diorama.
"Spy Kids 3-D" is best experienced as a demonstration of Rodriguez's boundless creativity. You can't help but laugh at toads on pogo sticks bouncing or sticking their tongues out at you, and the movie boasts several stellar set pieces: Juni and fellow video gamer Demetra (Courtney Jines, made to resemble an anime character) doing battle atop gigantic robots, whose movements mirror the kids'; the kids racing in a futuristic motocross and surfing atop hot lava.
Rodriguez makes the case that 3-D is a novelty worth revisiting, but there's a reason it hasn't become more common: Wearing those cardboard glasses becomes tiresome over long stretches, and the picture at times appears out of sync with itself.
Also, the red-and-blue-tinted glasses of the anaglyph system prevent Rodriguez from working in the vibrant color palettes of the previous two movies. Here, the yellows and grays dominate. Plus, the 3-D never delivers the obligatory money shot: a moment in which the audience ducks en masse from an incoming object.
A more basic problem with "Spy Kids 3-D" is that its video game structure is not complementary with lively cinematic storytelling. In a game you proceed methodically from Level 1 to 2 to 3, but on the big screen such a linear progression becomes plodding. You know they must reach Level 5 and wish they'd just find a shortcut. Although the first two movies appealed to parents and kids equally, the older viewers are more likely to find their patience tested this time around.
The finale, a showdown with a giant robot in front of the Texas Capitol building in Austin, is anti-climactic, a tacked-on, unconvincing effort to unite the Cortez family at last. (Again, if the parents are so willing to drop everything to come to their kids' aid, where were they when Carmen became trapped?)
Rodriguez has said he initially devised "Game Over" as a kids' science-fiction movie unrelated to "Spy Kids," and the effort to shoehorn the idea into the existing franchise is all too apparent. For the first time, the family-togetherness themes feel forced.
The filmmaker's imagination is too rich for "Spy Kids 3-D" to be written off as a failure. But it's too bad that while the visuals have gained a dimension, the story has lost one.
"Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"
Directed, written, photographed, edited, production designed and music by Robert Rodriguez; produced by Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan. A Dimension Films release; opens Friday, July 25. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: PG (action sequences, peril).
Juni Cortez Daryl Sabara
Carmen Cortez Alexa Vega
Grandfather Ricardo Montalban
Gregorio Cortez Antonio Banderas
Ingrid Cortez Carla Gugino
Grandmother Holland Taylor