Not to go too far into the long drawn-out history of Blue Sky Studios, one of the country’s few East Coast-based animation houses, but you have to feel a little bad for how they’ve been treated over the past 17 years. At much as it must have sucked to have your parent company Fox making you second fiddle to DreamWorks Animation for years, Blue Sky is now the kid sibling to two far-more-prominent and popular animation producers at the Disney Corp. In many ways, Spies in Disguise is a very different movie for Blue Sky, but it also might be a movie in which it has to prove itself all over again.
In the movie’s preamble, we’re introduced to young Walter Beckett, a weird science nerd who loves inventing crazy things, allowing him to get a job years later as the “Q” for an American secret service agency. The company’s top agent is super-spy Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith, who also looks a lot like Will Smith… until he doesn’t. After an embarrassing situation on a field mission in Japan, Sterling chews out Beckett (Tom Holland) and gets him fired, but not before he’s been framed for stealing a deadly weapon by the robot-handed villain Killian (voiced by Ben Mendelsohn). When Sterling is pursued by other agents, he turns to Walter’s new “invisibility serum” to help hide him but instead gets turned into a pigeon.
As you can imagine, Spies in Disguise is very high concept even by animation standards, though it does allow us to learn far more about bird anatomy than either of the two Rio movies. Starling’s pigeon status is also used in interesting and weird ways, particularly with the introduction of three highly-amusing bird companions that accompany Walter and Bird-Sterling on their mission to recover the weapon. They offer some of the movie’s biggest and weirdest laughs, for sure.
Where the movie lacks are some of the other human characters, including agents voiced by Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan (totally wasted!) and DJ Khaled, who don’t really have much to do except show up to act confused about why they can’t find Agent Sterling. (Psst… he’s a pigeon!) Mendelsohn is back in full-on villain mode, all but laughing maniacally with a plot straight out of a “Mission: Impossible” movie, almost literally, with his character trying to get secret info on other agents to destroy them with his stolen weapon.
The main reason that Spies in Disguise works at all is because Smith still has an enormous amount of charisma and personality merely with his voice. Smith has always been a likable star, and Spies in Disguise is a much better choice as a follow-up to Aladdin than Gemini Man was, allowing Smith to do what he does best i.e. be likable. His pairing with Holland works brilliantly thanks to a screenplay that’s better than 90% of what we normally get from Hollywood animated films. It makes you wonder if there’s a way Marvel Studios can convince Smith to be in one of Holland’s Spider-Man movies.
Other than the weirder stuff, which I loved, the humor still tends to be fairly obvious, never straying too far from gross-out potty humor and the overuse of slo-mo. Let’s not forget this is first and foremost a movie meant for kids, and thankfully, it’s one that’s not too painful for adults who feel the need to act responsibly and not just throw their kids into a theater by themselves while they go to see Little Women or something else.
In other words, Spies in Disguise is a perfectly fine family film, one that allows Blue Sky to re-establish itself as an edgier form of Disney animated movie with an entertaining premise that won’t bore or disappoint anyone forced to sit through it with kids.
Spies in Disguise will hit theaters nationwide on Christmas Day, December 25.