SPIES IN DISGUISE
PG, Three stars
As the Christmas holidays head towards their third week and the school holidays their fourth, cinemas start to roll out a fresh batch of family-focused films to draw families back, not that filtered air con isn't a drawcard in itself at the moment.
Spies in Disguise is escapist fun written to appeal to grown-ups on one level and packed with family-friendly physical comedy for the juniors.
It is based on Lucas Martell's animated short film Pigeon: Impossible (a Google search will uncover it, and it's a fun watch).
In Spies in Disguise, Will Smith provides the voice for Lance Sterling, a super-suave super-agent, a more calisthenic James Bond. We first meet him as he is taking out a couple of dozen ninjas in Japan, aided by some tech gadgets that work, though not in the ways Sterling was expecting.
Back at HQ underneath the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, Sterling chews out the geeky gadget-maker responsible, Walter (voiced by Tom Holland, the latest Spider-Man), and fires him.
But with his agency's internal affairs squad - Marcy, voiced by Rashida Jones, with her tech squad Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled) - after him for a crime he didn't commit, Sterling tracks Walter down at home to help him escape.
It just happens that Walter has perfected a formula to reconfigure human DNA to other forms, and before you know it, Sterling is a pigeon and boy and bird are on the run. The pair are looking for the real villain - Ben Mendelsohn's Killian, a robot-handed bad guy who has a past with Sterling.
The voice work from Mendelsohn is fun, Smith earns some good laughs for his delivery, and Holland has perfected that squeaky-voiced teen he employs in Spider-Man and Avengers.
While this works as a spy-espionage film, it isn't a particularly witty play on the genre. It's not a genre spoof like Rowan Atkinson's Johnny English. Even the later Mission: Impossible films are full of more gags than most actual comedies. It works in this space more to give the filmmakers the chance to employ any number of cutesy tech gadgets for comedy purposes. The ideas behind the gadgets are fun with their junior audience in mind, like the kitty glitter bomb, and reinforce the filmmakers' message that problems can be solved with means other than violence.
In animation, the filmmaker can go anywhere and position their cameras in places physical film directors only dream about - and yet the "camera" setups and framing in animated films are usually quite traditional. I appreciated a few clever shots designed by directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane. This is their first feature film, having come up through the ranks of the animation and art departments on films like the Ice Age and Rio series.
It isn't particularly nuanced, but first time at bat it hits one home for their younger family audience. When you're an old and jaded film critic who feels like you've seen it all, sometimes the best review for a children's film is to close your eyes and listen for the laughter, and in my full cinema on opening day, the laughter came throughout. Families were enjoying themselves and the laughter was infectious.
There is so much real life going on around our communities at the moment that 100 minutes of escapist cartoonish fun in blissful air-conditioning is worth more than the value of the ticket itself. Stay safe, everybody.