Spies in Disguise bakes one novel ingredient into an otherwise bland and derivative recipe. A techie geek uses his marginal social status as an inspiration to create a chemically-induced superpower. Sure, being ignored may suck, but it also has an enormous well of potential: Some people only do their best work when flying under the radar. This fact gives the film just a smidge of dramatic impact, as–ironically–the rest of Spies is too garish and obvious for its own good.
The story kicks off with Lance Sterling (voice of Will Smith), a swaggering superspy capable of dispatching any stubbly, vaguely-European bad guy with a swift roundhouse and a snappy one-liner. Sterling makes saving the world seem easy, until Robo Hand (Ben Mendelsohn) absconds with a top-secret drone and frames our hero for the crime. The Man from H.I.T.C.H. finds an unlikely ally in Walter (Tom Holland), a gadget-guru who Doogie Howser-ed his way through MIT. Tasked with keeping Sterling out of jail and on the trail of Robo Hand, Walter hits on an interesting solution: He renders Sterling invisible by transforming him into a pigeon. Initially outraged, Sterling soon finds that his feathery transmutation allows him to work in plain sight.
Let’s stitch all that together: Put The Incredibles, Inspector Gadget, and a dash of Rio into a stew pot and cook for 90 minutes. The dish you’ll get won’t nourish you, but it might fill up your kids. And that’s a big, bold maybe for a reason, folks. Of all its strengths, Spies in Disguise does a great job of seeming like a million other movies.
With that backhanded compliment out of the way, I’ll again touch on the film’s one actual positive trait: Throughout the film, Walter either gets dismissively shoved aside or derided as a weirdo. Rather than let that crush his spirit, Walter slaps it on the proverbial bulletin board and channels it to deploy his most powerful invention. The idea of a person flipping their perceived negatives into positives and turning them onto their enemies is the most refreshingly sophisticated aspect to this film’s narrative, and it almost justifies everything around it.
That’s an even bigger almost. Smith and Holland get perfectly cast as 007 and Q, respectively. The animation is as bright and bubbly as you’ll see this side of Pixar. But, in the end, none of that rescues Spies in Disguise from being another disposable kid’s movie. The one good thing about this story makes all of its flaws that much more frustrating.
102 min. PG.