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SPY KIDS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Robert Patrick, Tony Shalhoub, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara
Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dimension/Disney
Features:  Theatrical & Teaser Trailers
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

“Never send an adult to do a kid’s job.”

Film ***1/2

There seem to be at least three certainties in life:  death, taxes, and Disney finding a way to screw DVD fans.  Only a couple of months after proclaiming them “most improved DVD studio” in our semi-annual Studio Scorecard, they’re back to their old tricks with Spy Kids.

Remember the so-called special edition that came back to theatres only recently?  The official word was, a certain effects sequence involving a cave filled with sleeping sharks was supposed to have been part of the original movie, but writer/director/producer Robert Rodriguez couldn’t finish it owing to budgetary concerns.  After the picture became a hit, he was allowed to complete the scene.  The “special edition”, the studio proclaimed, was in fact the real and complete version of the film.

So…why the hell is the previous incomplete version being released as the official DVD offering?  I ask the question like I don’t already know the answer…somewhere down the line, the “special edition” will show up, and Disney will once again sucker fans into paying twice for the same title.  Hey, I’ve never objected to later DVD editions coming out with a lot more bonus material, but come on…why withhold the so-called complete version from digital fans?

The studio’s rape-and-pillage policy notwithstanding, Spy Kids is one heckuva cool film.  Rodriguez, know for fun, over-the-top action pictures like El Mariachi, Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn, pulls out all the stops here like a rabid kid going nuts in the biggest toy store on the planet.  The resulting movie is fast, funny, sleekly designed, imaginative, and best of all, a perfect family film.

Gregario (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino) seem like normal, placid suburban parents with two typical kids, daughter Carmen (Vega) and son Juni (Sabara), but they harbor a secret (told in a terrific flashback sequence near the beginning).  They were once two of the world’s greatest spies, but had long since retired for the sake of parenthood.

But when an old nemesis, Minion (Shalhoub) arranges the kidnapping of many of the couple’s former comrades, they jump back into action one last time…only to find they are not quite as smooth as they once were.  Minion has enlisted the help of a popular kids’ show host, Fegan Floop (Cumming), who has discovered a way to keep the good agents under control (while boosting his ratings at the same time).

Meanwhile, the kids, who had no idea about their parents’ alter egos, are suddenly thrust into the middle of an adventure they never saw coming.  With the help of some wild and unpredictable gadgetry and a newfound confidence in themselves, they set off to save the day…and Mom and Dad as well.

Mere words can’t describe what an imaginative thrill ride this picture is.  Rodriguez obviously remembers what it’s like to be a kid, and he’s designed a production that will not only appeal to children, but to the kid inside the parents as well.  His digital toy box is colorful and limitless, and you’ll see such wonders as thumb robots (all appendages are giant thumbs), super fast jet packs, SUVs that turn into submarines, and much more.  The events come in such rapid fire fashion that you may find it hard to catch your breath.

The youngsters, Vega and Sabara, are quite appealing in their roles.  Their performances range from bickering and name calling like any real kid siblings to an almost stoically philosophical approach to what their new duties are.  Truth be told, even as the title characters, they are only a small part of what makes the movie magical.

Parents, you can feel good about this film.  There is no profanity, and only the most broad type of cartoon style violence.  The overall message about family unity and believing in ones’ self is a good and universal one, to be sure…it’s just never been told in a manner that’s been this much fun.

Video **

This DVD really took me back…to a time when Disney transfers were pure crap.  This one is anamorphic, to be sure, but it’s quite problematic from beginning to end.  Rodriguez’ rich and wild color schemes have no balance or contrast.  Bleeding is an issue time and time again, as well as unnatural over-saturation of scene after scene.  Flesh tones are horrid, often coming across as too yellow or too orange.  The image is a bit soft throughout, which doesn’t help the color containment.  If one color is brighter than the rest of the scene, it spills over.  I don’t know who was QC’ing this transfer for the studio, but he or she must have been watching a different movie at the time.

Audio **1/2

Again, frustration abounds.  This could have, and should have, been a dynamite audio experience.  There is action from every direction in scene after scene.  Crossovers are smooth and fluid, BUT…the whole thing lacks dynamic range.  It just never gets as loud as events on the screen seem to warrant.  There also seems to be a bit of a mix error in some scenes…as dialogue comes through the center channel, it often does so at a noticeably higher volume than the other channels…it keeps certain bits slightly off balance.  Again, a little more care at the QC level could have made a big difference.

Features *

Only a teaser and a full trailer.

Summary:

Great movie, bad DVD.  You don’t get the so-named “complete” version of the film on this disc, and that’s just for starters.  The substandard video and audio quality make this a shameful reminder of Disney’s stigmatized past with the format.  Objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear after all, I suppose.