[Nightmarish Detour] SPIES IN DISGUISE

The holidays are quickly approaching, and usually around this time of year, one can anticipate a slew of family-friendly films hitting the theaters to cash in on everyone’s time off. This year is no exception, and one of the flagship family films releasing just in time for Christmas is SPIES IN DISGUISE from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios. Blue Sky Studios made a name for themselves with their hit Ice Age franchise, and with SPIES IN DISGUISE, they seek to further expand their brand of crude, slapstick comedy. The film features an incredible cast including Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan, and many more. With this new film, Blue Sky Studios manages to turn an absurd concept into a fairly compelling children’s story with the help of some spot-on performances and stunning animation. 

Will Smith voices Lance Sterling, a super spy working for the United States government. Sterling is like Ethan Hunt and James Bond combined—he’s an unstoppable, charismatic action hero who everyone adores. He’s witty, charming, agile, and begins the film at the top of the spy hierarchy. We first meet him in the heat of the action as he’s working a mission in Japan to retrieve a hi-tech deadly drone weapon from the clutches of a bionic-handed villain named Tristan McFord (Ben Mendelsohn). The mission goes seemingly well in spite of a hilarious equipment malfunction which sees Sterling throwing what he assumes to be a grenade, that instead showers the villains with glitter and holograms of kittens. Miraculously, the confounding instrument distracts the villains for long enough and Sterling is able to retrieve a briefcase containing the drone and return to headquarters.

TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

When Sterling arrives back at HQ, he heads straight for the equipment lab to confront the scientist responsible for his kitten grenade. It turns out to be a harmless social reject by the name of Walter Beckett (Tom Holland). Walter is eccentric and picked on by his peers and colleagues for being different. His aim is to reinvent espionage by creating tools and weapons that incapacitate enemies in peaceful, non-violent ways. Sterling is enraged that Walter has messed with his equipment, and promptly fires him for his tampering. Walter pleads with Sterling to give his gadgets a chance, but Sterling is stubborn and set in his ways, leaving Walter distraught and without a job. 

TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication | Photo Credit: Blue Sky Studios

As Sterling triumphantly returns the briefcase containing the drone to his superiors, he’s horrified to discover the case is empty. Unbeknownst to him, McFord has developed a technology that allows him to change his face, and he’s seen on camera disguised as Sterling, stealing the actual drone weapon. Believing Sterling to be behind the weapon theft, the US Government sends in a tactical team headed by agent Marcy Kippel (Rashida Jones) who is given the task of hunting down Sterling and arresting him. Sterling barely escapes headquarters and is forced into hiding. Desperate to disappear off the government’s radar, Sterling goes to Walter’s home in hopes the young scientist can assist him.

Walter tells Sterling he’s experimenting with a new potion that can effectively rearrange the drinker’s DNA to match that of another creature. Before Sterling arrives at Walter’s house, we see Walter brewing this exact potion, using a feather from his pet pigeon as a test sample. Thinking Walter is offering him a glass of water, Sterling downs the glass of the potion in one gulp. This is where things get really interesting. All of this plot is setting the film up for its central premise, which sees Sterling transformed into a pigeon. Walter is not only thrilled that his potion works, but also shows Sterling the benefits of being so inconspicuous in pigeon form. Sterling is both enraged by the outcome, and reluctant to accept Walter’s help and guidance.

TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication | Photo Credit: Blue Sky Studios

From here the film explores its two central themes—Walter is an outcast seeking acceptance, while Sterling is a stubborn loner, who prefers to fly solo and not work as part of a team. These two themes are the main push and pull of the film’s story, and the comedy largely comes from the hilarious escapades of Walter and his pigeon secret agent. The concept feels stretched a little thin in some places, but for the most part, Smith manages to sell it well. You can’t help but be taken by the film’s goofy charm occasionally, and Smith and Holland make a great duo in this animated outing. While the character development and serious thematic moments lack the sophistication and depth of a Pixar film, there’s still enough there to give the film some heart. 

Visually the film is stunning, with electric action sequences and the stylings of a James Bond movie. The influence of franchises such as Bond or John Wick is extremely welcomed and evident, and they’re perfectly repurposed for a kid-friendly presentation. Any child will surely be entertained by this movie, and there’s enough subtle adult humor thrown in for parents to enjoy it as well. While I felt the film could’ve been helped by a bit more serious character development, I overall enjoyed myself and had a good time watching it. If you’re looking for a fun, hilarious animated film to catch with your family this holiday, SPIES IN DISGUISE is about as good an option as you could get. SPIES IN DISGUISE arrives in theaters Christmas Day. 

Connor Strader
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Nightmarish Detour

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