Animation seems to have reached its golden era. In 2019 alone, we had the emotional conclusion of the Toy Story films, the breathtakingly gorgeous Frozen 2, the adorable The Missing Link and the surprisingly solid sequel to The Lego Movie. Not only do all these films look fantastic, but they’ve also deepened our understanding of what narratives animation can tell. These are not just throwaway entertainment and most definitely not just for kids, these are genuinely impressive pieces of cinema, full of artistic ambition and passion for the craft and storytelling.
Which is probably why Spies In Disguise falls a little flat at times.
Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest secret agent, who kicks ass around the globe and looks damn fine doing it. Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) is a nerdy tech guy working for Sterling’s agency. Beckett would love to solve the world’s conflicts with glitter and hugs, but Sterling is realist enough to know that’s not how the world of international assassins and supervillains work. Sterling is accidentally turned into a pigeon (stay with me here), just when the world needs him to catch a supervillain who threatens the entire agency. Adventure now waits for the shy and scared Beckett who is forced to helped pigeon-Sterling in the pursuit for Killian (Ben Mendelsohn). Throw in a few internal agents pursuing Sterling and you’ve got quite an action-packed film.
Spies In Disguise isn’t a bad film in any sense. In fact, it’s sweet, hilarious and undeniably entertaining. Almost all of the jokes in the film land with powerful belly laughs or at the very least, contagious giggles and it’s hard not to fall in love with Holland and Smith’s chemistry, whether or not it has been created solely in post-production.
It’s just that there’s nothing in the film that makes a lasting impression. It constantly feels forgettable and disposable and it’s hard not to compare it to the better, more ambitious animated films we’ve seen lately. It feels a little juvenile from a narrative and thematic perspective, which will probably delight the younger viewers but offers very little substance for the older film fans looking for another solid genre piece. Beckett’s insistence that violence is unnecessary and problems can and should be solved without the use of violent measures is a sweet sentiment and it certainly leads to some pretty entertaining scenes but it’s hard not to feel that there was more here to explore. Without a doubt, the world would be a much better place without so much violence but the film fails to really dissect our fascination with violence as well as the real consequences of violence.
Much like Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon paid homage to the great sci-fi films of all time, Spies In Disguise does spy films, especially James Bond, proud. A particular highlight is the opening credits, animated in a Bond-esque manner with added pigeons, appropriately. All of Sterling’s various spy gadgets are fun to observe in use, but the film could have used even more of this.
Most of the film’s jokes focus on Sterling’s experience as a pigeon and almost all of them work flawlessly. Smith does great voice work here, but perhaps the biggest issue here is Smith’s recognisable voice. One of the biggest stars on the planet, Smith fails to disappear into a role, any role and every time Sterling speaks, it’s impossible not to see Will Smith. Holland fairs better and Beckett is a sweet, empathetic character, one that constantly looks like he could use a hug or a sandwich, or both.
Killian as a villain also feels a little vague and never offers any real sense of threat. Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn has a truly menacing voice, but Killian isn’t afforded many lines or even much screen time here. There was plenty of potential here for Killian to be a truly terrifying presence, but directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane are too busy making jokes about a pigeon puking up a plaster to make room for the film’s villain. It’s the lack of stakes that ultimately fails Spies In Disguise. It didn’t necessarily need to feature ground-breaking animation or have a particularly dark narrative, but regardless of its target audience, a film needs conflict and stakes and that’s exactly what’s missing from Spies In Disguise.
Nevertheless, Spies In Disguise is a superbly entertaining film, even if you forget all about it 20 minutes after leaving the cinema. With great voice work from Will Smith and Tom Holland, this is a feel-good film that should particularly grab the attention of the family’s youngest cinephiles.
Dir: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Ben Mendelsohn, Rashida Jones
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Runtime: 102 min
Spies In Disguise is in cinemas now.