Spies in Disguise (2019) Review
In amongst the larger animated film studios (i.e Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination Entertainment) that have dominated the recent years of animated feature films endeavors; bringing cartoon tales with laughter, heart, and whimsical drama, Blue Sky Studios have been one of the more secondary outlets of animated filmmaking. Much like Pixar’s origins, Blue Sky started by creating visual effects for commercials and animated characters for movies during 1989 to 2002 before it took the first plunge in producing its first animated motion picture with the release of Ice Age in 2002. While the movie was met with critical success from both critics and moviegoers, the studio saw Ice Age as a franchise starter; churning out sequels to the 2002 original with less and less fanfare towards each newest installment. However, Blue Sky did produce several non-Ice Age animated movies, including Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who in 2008, Rio in 2011, and Epic in 2013; resulting in mixed thoughts on each project. That being said, Blue sky seems to be on the upward spin with such well-received movies of late, including 2015’s The Peanuts Movie and 2017’s Ferdinand. Now, Blue Sky Studios (under the 20th Century Fox banner that Disney Studios has bought) and directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno present the 13th animated feature film with the release of Spies in Disguise. Does this movie fly high with spy premise or does it get lost within its silly premise?
Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is the best in the business of spying. Talented, suave, and cool under pressure, Lance is sent in by a secretive American organization named H.T.U.V (Honor, Trust, Unity, and Valor) to retrieve an attack drone from a Japanese arms dealer named Katsu Kimura (Masi Oka), but gets caught off-guard with the sudden appearance by Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a terrorist mastermind. Making a critical mistake, Lance watches as Killian gets away with the drone, leaving him targeted by Marcy (Rashida Jones), an internal affair officer who believes the hero was actually responsible for the theft. Making a getaway to clear his name, Lance finds help from Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a low-level employee in the weapons development division of H.T.U.V., and one who is experimenting with a special “biodynamic concealment” formula that Lance accidentally drinks. Transformation by the potion into a pigeon, Lance goes into a full panic, suddenly dealing with natural bird issues, while Killian gears up for a major attack on the H.T.U.V.’s agency and all their undercover agents around the globe. Waiting for Walter to concoct an antidote to reversal everything, Lance reluctantly bonds with his partner, with the pair working to disrupt Killian’s plan.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I said, the likes of Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination Entertainment have certainly been the main animated powerhouses of late, which quite evident in the cartoon films they have produced through the scheduled releases throughout each subsequential year. Blue Sky has definitely made some hits over the years as I did love the original Ice Age, but its sequels became tedious and tiresome (I really do think that this movie franchise should’ve retired after its two or third installment), while some of its non-Ice Age hits were sort of mixed bag….such as Epic, Rio 2, and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. That being said, I did love some of their other projects like Robots, The Peanuts Movie, and Ferdinand, which demonstrated that the animated studio still had plenty of entertainment value left in their creative engines to go up against some of the prominent studios. Plus, let’s not forget that Blue Sky Studios created the crazy (and loveable) Ice Age character Scrat for our viewing pleasure, which was created as side character / side story in the Ice Age movies, but became more popular character than any of the Ice Age characters, with his nervous body movement shifting, his Looney Tunes-esque antics and situations, and his love for his acorn nut.
This brings me back to talking about Spies in Disguise, the latest animated motion picture project from Blue Sky Studios. I did remember hearing about this movie, but mostly when it was first announced and not so much on Pidgeon: Impossible, the 2009 animated short of which the movie was loosely based on and was directed by Lucas Martell. As a side-note, I did see the short prior to seeing the movie, so I can see where the film took its inspiration for the main narrative (as well as spy nuances). Back to the point, I remember when Spies in Disguise was announced and hearing that actors Will Smith and Tom Holland were going to be attach to the project and in the lead roles. Thus, I was definitely curious to see how both Smith and Holland were play off each other in their respective roles. I did also see the many (and I do mean many) movie trailers for the film, with a new one getting releases almost every month or so. I posted a few on my blog, but it became a little bit redundant as the trailer would be pretty much the same thing, with one or two scenes added. Still, looking beyond that point, I was curious to see Spies in Disguise as (as mentioned above) Blue Sky’s release have been that some of the past endeavors, so I was expecting that this particular movie was going to be on the same level as those recent projects. So, I went to see the film a week after it got released in theaters on a Thursday afternoon. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite a few problems within its storytelling and execution, Spies in Disguise is genuine fun and lighthearted animated feature that delivers on its wacky premise with its lead vocal performances and riffing on its spy nuances. It doesn’t “take the cake” as being the best animated film of 2019, but it’s definitely one of the better releases than some.
Spies in Disguise is directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, who both make their animated feature length directorial debut with this project. With both Quane and Bruno have history background in animation, their combine efforts in helming this particular cartoon motion picture definitely works; making Spies in Disguise a genuinely fun that works on many levels. Given the spy action aspects of the movie, the duo directors approach the feature by staging plenty of classic spy nuances that, while commonplace, are still funnily utilized within the feature’s presentation, with a few cool visual and nifty gadget designs (and the effectives that they have when used). Plus, Quane and Bruno stage plenty of laughable moments in the movie as I found myself chuckling and laughing out within the various bits and pieces of comedic jokes and gags. Also, the film’s concept, while being reworked from Lucas Martell’s animated short, is also handled well, with the movie’s story (though a bit silly in concept) does pull off to make a fun and amusing animated endeavor. Additionally, Quane and Bruno keep the film’s attention on Lance and Walter’s journey together to stop Killian and never get distracted with unnecessary side-story plot threads. Thus, with the movie having a runtime of 102 minutes (one hour and forty-two minutes), Spies in Disguise definitely has a good pace and never feels sluggish in any way, shape, or form; briskly moving along with plenty of animated distraction and entertainment to keep a viewer’s attention from start to finish. All in all, Quane and Bruno did a admirable job in the first time directors for a full-length animated movie; making Spies in Disguise a fun and widely humorous spy adventure romp that offers plenty of distraction for the young viewers out there as well as being appealing for adults.
Looking past the spy nuances and its silly premise, Spies in Disguise does offer a really heartfelt message at its core fundamentals. Like a lot of kid’s animated movies, the thematic and important message of teamwork and acceptance are on full display in the film’s narrative, especially in the relationship between Lance and Walter, which (as always) is quite palpable and a great moral lesson to be learned, but the more interesting commentary message that the feature prompts is the idea of breaking the cycle of violence in order to create a safer future. While the idea is completely original, it is still quite a powerful message to be placed in the movie, especially since the whole spy action premise is the primarily narrative piece in the movie. Plus, it’s all handle quite well and presented in a way that’s quite easy for young children to understand. Naturally, this can also reflect into the real-world, with acts of bullying and hate crime violence sparking up everywhere. So, in this particular category, Spies in Disguise does offer a healthy (and heartful) lesson of acceptance, working with others, and using non-violence.
In the technical presentation department, Spies in Disguise meets the industry standards for animated feature film that’s released in 2019. What do I mean? Well, it certainly looks quite colorful, with a wide array of brightness and depth within its animation nuances that certainly add some “pop” throughout much of the feature’s runtime. Plus, the movie has its own signature style of animation, with many of the character have very distinct looks in both body design and facial depictions. Thus, no character is a carbon copy look about them. However, the movie’s animation doesn’t push the visual boundaries of 3D animated cartoon motion pictures. So, to me, it all kind of breaks even. I wasn’t disappointed with it, but I wasn’t completely “wowed” by it like how I was with other 2019 animated films. Also, the film’s score, which was composed by Theodore Shapiro, provides a solid musical composition that certainly works for any scene the movie has to offer….be it spy action oriented or soft dialogue moments.
There are a few problems that I noticed with the movie and, while not earth-shattering to completely derailed the feature, it just simply holds Spies in Disguises back from reaching its full potential. Perhaps the easiest one to point out is the overall formulaic nature of the feature and how the movie proceeds forward with it. Despite a unique concept of a super spy turning into a pigeon, the movie’s narratives plays out in a predictable manner. Even before seeing the movie, I sort of guess (judging from the film’s various movie trailers and TV spots) how the story was ultimately gonna play out and (sure enough) it did the way I predicted it to be. Thus, the film’s script, which was penned by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, delivers a standard animated narrative pathway that’s formulaic in its designs and predictable in its execution. Its easy to see what the outcome will be for Lance and Walter, despite the many perils that they face. That doesn’t mean that Spies in Disguise is a terrible movie, but rather lacks some of the creativeness and really doesn’t color “outside the lines” of a stereotypical animated kids movie. Additionally, coinciding with that knowledge, the film just lacks the same type of power as other animated feature endeavors of late have able to drum up, including Toy Story 4, Frozen II, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Yes, I do understand that a movie like Spies in Disguise can’t be as hard hitting (dramatically and emotionally speaking) as those animated movies, but the film just lacks that type of finesse within its production. Could be it from the script handling? Possibly. Could be also from Quane and Bruno’s vision for the film? Another possibility. But I just can’t place my finger on it. I don’t know…. maybe I’m getting a little bit spoiled with these recent animated films. Speaking of which, the movie sort of revealed its “big” moment in much of its marketing campaign, so a lot of the surprise and sort of “wow” wasn’t there for when it happened. Lastly, some of the characters could’ve been tweaked a bit more in the writing development process, but I’ll mention some below.
The cast in Spies in Disguise is a talented bunch, with plenty of recognizable names attached to the project and lending their respective voices to bring these animated characters to life. Leading the charge (and definitely keep the feature fresh and fun) are respectable talents of actors Will Smith and Tom Holland, who became the film’s main protagonist character of Lance Sterling and Walter Beckett. Smith, known for his roles in Bad Boys, The Pursuit of Happiness, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, has always been the talent to lay on his charismatic screen presence on any project he works on. The feature might not be good, but at least Smith is usually “charmingly” good in it. Thus, it comes at no surprise that he finds a perfect fit for the cool and suave character of Lance Sterling; interjecting Smith’s charm and bravado into the animated character with great ease and effectiveness. Likewise, Holland, known for his roles in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and The Impossible, gives a solid job in voicing Beckett; providing the same type of energetic and youthful voice that he’s provide for in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Peter Parker / Spider-Man. He certainly cares the heart of the film’s thematic message of the film’s story, with Holland producing a type of endearing sweetness to Walter. In addition, the collaboration of both Smith and Holland definitely works, with their back and forth witty banter being some of the best moments that the movie has to offer, with the pair having magnetic chemistry. All in all, I personally think Smith and Holland make Spies in Disguise the most enjoyable part of the movie. Plain and simple.
In more secondary roles, actress Rashida Jones and actor Ben Mendelsohn play the their respective characters of Marcy Kappel, an internal affairs secret agent who is in “hot pursuit” of Lance Sterling, and Killian, a villainous man with a robotic hand who seeks to rid the world of H.T.U.V.’s spy organization once and for all. Both Jones, known for her roles in Parks & Recreation, Angie Tribeca, and The Social Network, and Mendelsohn, known for his roles in Ready Player One, Darkest Hour, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, certainly know how to play their respective roles by providing the right amount of animated gravitas in their performances; finding Marcy to be steely determined with a sense of snappy wit and Killian to be downright villainous in his sinister tone (seriously….Mendelsohn has certainly nailed the bad guy voice down perfectly). However, both characters are stock-like and don’t really have anything clever or creative to discern themselves from similar individuals, with Marcy being the determined agent that believes the hero is up to no good and Killian being the stereotypical moustache twirling bad guy. Kind of wished that both were more developed a bit beyond their initial setup persona. Still, regardless of that, both Jones and Mendelsohn are great in the roles.
The rest of the cast, including country singer / actress Reba McEntire (Reba and Malibu County) as Joy Jenkins, the director of H.T.U.V. and Sterling’s superior, actor Masi Oka (Heroes and Hawaii Five-0) as Katsu Kimura, a Japanese arms dealer and associate to Killian, actress Karen Gillian (Avengers: Endgame and Doctor Who) as Eyes, Marcy’s H.T.U.V’s specialist tracker, musical artist DJ Khaled (Pitch Perfect 3) as Ears, Marcy’s H.T.U.V’s specialist tracker who is paired with Eyes, and actress Rachel Brosnahan (The Finest Hour and Patriots Day) as Wendy Beckett, Walter’s mom, fill out the rest of characters in the movie as supporting roles. Some characters have a bit more of the spotlight in the film than others, but all of these vocal performances are solid in their respective roles…. even Khaled’s usual one-liners bits. Though both Gillian and Khaled’s characters Eyes and Ears could’ve been easily expanded upon; making them the somewhat underutilized supporting characters in the feature.
Super spy or super fly? You’ll be the judge as secret agent Lance Sterling goes “undercover” as a pigeon to save the day in the movie Spies in Disguise. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno’s animated film takes a zany premise (loosely adapted from an animated short film) and channels comedic charm and spy action nuances throughout. While some of the narrative material could’ve been fleshed out and certain aspects could’ve been expanded upon, the movie hits its stride within its unique concept, colorful animation, toiling around with classic spy nuances, a solid thematic message, and spot-on voice talents, especially Smith and Holland. Personally, I liked this movie. It wasn’t the most original animated film out there (with some problematic narratives bits and pieces along the way), but it was definitely a fun and wholesome cartoon feature endeavor. Plus, as I said, Smith and Holland certainly made the movie. Thus, my recommendation for the film is solid “recommended” as it will provide plenty of animated fun for the whole family (whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart). All in all, while the movie won’t be considered to be the best animated of the year, Spies in Disguise makes for a fun and entertaining animated adventure that works for all (and not just bird lovers); providing not to count Blue Sky Studios out of the race for animated feature films.
3.9 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: December 25th, 2019
Reviewed On: January 9th, 2020
Spies in Disguise is 102 minutes long and is rated PG for action, violence, and rude humor