Spies in Disguise (United States, 2019)

December 24, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spies in Disguise Poster

All animated films are not created equal. Some aspire for greatness, seeking to bring wonders to the screen that live-action can’t fully capture. Others exist for purely commercial means – cynical brand-management put together not to touch the imagination but to raid the wallet. Spies in Disguise, a limp James Bond knockoff, belongs in the latter category. It’s a big-screen cartoon and, although it may work for its target audience – video game-consuming pre-teen boys – other viewers may find the production to be lacking in anything beyond a little visual razzle-dazzle.

Spies in Disguise doesn’t lack for star power with Will Smith providing the voice of the 007-inspired Lance Sterling and Tom Holland taking the role of his Q-like sidekick, Walter Beckett. Also along for the ride in smaller parts are Rashida Jones as Marcy Kappel, the Internal Affairs Agent who suspects Lance of nefarious doings; Ben Mendelsohn as Killian, the bad guy; and Karen Gillan and DJ Khaled as Marcy’s sidekicks, Eyes and Ears. (With Holland, Gillan, and Mendelsohn, it’s a veritable MCU reunion.)

The movie opens by making it clear that Lance is the coolest thing out there – after his latest successful mission, even his co-workers are in awe of his star power. Bad news, however. His newest nemesis, Killian, has stolen his identity, causing Marcy and her underlings to believe that Lance has switched sides. Even his boss, Joy Jenkins (Reba McEntire), can’t protect him so he has no choice but to “become invisible.” To do this, he enlists the aid of boy-genius and noted pacifist Walter. However, Walter’s idea of making Lance invisible is to turn him into a talking pigeon. For the rest of the movie, the Walter/feathered-Lance team pursues two quests: retrieve a stolen Armageddon weapon from Killian and “unbird” Lance while avoiding being captured by Marcy.

The behind-the-scenes team responsible for Spies in Disguise doesn’t have an A-list pedigree. This is the product (accent on that word) assembled by Blue Sky Studios, the people responsible for the Ice Age movies (which started mediocre and went downhill from there). It evidences the same degree of emphasis on recognizable voices and underwhelming artwork. The blocky, angular animation is uninspired; it feels more like something designed for a video game than a big screen offering. Perhaps the desire is to create a sense of familiarity for those who attend the film. Co-directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane are making their feature debuts after serving in the art and animation departments on a bunch of other Blue Sky projects.

Perhaps the best way to describe the storyline of Spies in Disguise would be “tiresome.” The script is comprised of a string of tired clichés knitted together without rhyme or reason. When it’s not trying to be clever by making fun of James Bond (is there any lower-hanging fruit?), it’s working hard on the mismatched buddy angle. The filmmakers seem unconcerned about appealing to anyone who isn’t a 9-year old boy. Aside from the occasional throw-away line, there’s little here to interest adults; the story is in desperate need of something shaken or stirred. Spies in Disguise stands in stark contrast to 2018’s end-of-the-year animated surprise, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which was a breath of fresh air. This movie reveals that far too many animated films prefer stale breezes and recycled wind.

Spies in Disguise (United States, 2019)

Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Reba McEntire
Home Release Date: 2020-03-10
Screenplay: Brad Copeland, Lloyd Taylor
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2019-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1