Less than a year and a half ago, writer/director Robert Rodriguez surprised moviegoers with Spy Kids, a zippy adventure featuring loads of nifty high-tech gadgets, delightfully retro special effects and a welcome sense of silliness. Even better, it presented a fully functional family, something rarely seen in popular entertainment.
Sister and brother Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) squabbled like any set of siblings, but they also clearly loved each other. Even better, their parents, secret agents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino), were a smart, supportive couple madly in love (and, after years of marriage, still in lust). What a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood approach.
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams isn"t as good. The sense of discovery is gone, of course, but the main problem is that Rodriguez caught a case of sequel fever, the ailment infamous for making filmmakers believe that, when designing a sequel, more is always better. Spy Kids 2 is far too busy, with too many people and too much going on. Still, the film retains enough charm to offset the excess.
This time the adventure begins with our heroes saving the rebellious daughter of the president of the United States (Taylor Momsen). Inter-agency politics have reduced the influence of the kids" father, Gregario, and as a result, agent Donnagan Giggles (Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill creator Mike Judge) gets to hand the juicy assignments to his spy kids, Gary (Matthew O"Leary) and Gerti (Emily Osment, Haley Joel"s little sister).
Ah, but Carmen and Juni will not so easily be sidelined. When Gary and Gerti head out to retrieve a device capable of shutting down all electricity on the Earth, Carmen manages to alter their route, sending them off to the Gobi Desert while she and her brother hop in the spy ship for an underwater jaunt to the island where the device actually has been hidden.
Once on the island, they encounter a number of very large, extremely bizarre animals and Romero (Steve Buscemi), the twitchy scientist who made them. Traumatized by the fruits of his experiments, Romero has become a recluse, cowering in his lab, terrified of the giants wandering outside his doors.
Gary and Gerti eventually show up on the island, setting up a momentous spy kids vs. spy kids face off. But Carmen and Juni are mortified when their folks show up. And, just when it seems like the situation could not become worse, the kids find out that Mom and Dad have been joined by Grandpa (Ricardo Montalban) and Grandma (Holland Taylor).
Can the kids defeat the monsters, or will they die of embarrassment first?
Everything that worked in the first film still works here: the loopy, immature humor, the just-cheesy-enough special effects and especially the central cast. Young Vega and Sabara make a dandy team, and the older members of the family are equally appealing. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino still sizzle, and the addition of Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor as the grandparents is inspired. So much so, in fact, that Rodriguez would be wise to consider breaking from the series long enough to devote a more adult movie to the grown-up characters.
As the scientist playing Frankenstein with critters, the always-entertaining Steve Buscemi delivers the most interesting line in the film. Hiding from his genetically-engineered beasts, he turns to Carmen and Juni and quietly asks, "Do you think God, too, stays in heaven for fear of what he created on Earth?"
That sentence alone justifies the existence of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams.
One discouraging note: At the advance screening I attended, there were audible gasps from some adults when, late in the film, Carmen used the word "shit." Their surprise was understandable, as the word seemed wildly out of place. So why did Rodriguez elect to throw one swear word into his movie? Simple: to avoid the stigma of a G rating. It seems that older kids - the target audience for the movie - consider G-rated films too babyish for their attention. But the insertion of one "shit" is enough to secure a PG rating, thus making it acceptable for the older kids.
A practical decision, sure, but also a sad one.