In 2001, Spy Kids appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and caught most of us by surprise. The action/comedy about a family of secret agents focused on the young brother and sister team of Juni (Daryl Sabara) and Carmen (Alexa Vega) and their first adventure as they set out to rescue their captured parents.
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the low-budget film had a wonderful homemade feel. The computer-generated special effects were wildly imaginative and more than a bit cheesy, which only enhanced the homemade sensibility. Fast, brash and funny, the movie celebrated family and the rewards of working together.
Last year’s Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams was less successful, suffering from the more-is-better mindset so common to sequels, but it still had a number of nice moments. The family theme was actually expanded, with the introduction of grandparents who were also secret agents.
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the finale of the franchise according to Rodriguez, marks a major departure in approach from the previous films and a sorry wrap-up to the quirky series. Inexplicably, the filmmaker discards those elements that worked best before in favor of chintzy computer animated visuals in 3-D. A headache is virtually guaranteed, if not from the red and blue paper glasses, then from the dreadful script and bad acting.
Have you ever been on an amusement park ride based on a hit film? If so, you’ve stood in the queue and watched the set-up stories on the TV monitors. These quasi-movies, intended to get patrons juiced up for the ride, use the sets of the hit film and a couple of second stringers — never the stars — from the cast (the quasi-movie for the Back to the Future ride in Universal Studios, for example, stars Christopher Lloyd, not Michael J. Fox) in some trumped up rescue story. Spy Kids 3 plays like one of those quasi-movies.
Gone for most of the story are all of the family members except 12-year-old Juni, called out of retirement (??) for a rescue mission. To save his sister Carmen, who is being held captive by the evil Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone in comic mode, playing four characters — all poorly), he must enter the Toymaker’s video game and conquer the dreaded fifth level. Tron is looking better all the time.
In the spotlight as Juni, Daryl Sabara, the youngest member of the original cast, grimaces, sputters and shifts about uneasily. The boy is a poor actor, but he looks like Olivier in comparison to the other children he encounters along the way.
Not that it matters, though, because the star of Spy Kids 3 is the big 3-D computer-animated video game. While some of the visuals are impressive, most notably the aerial part of the race scene, the overall look is just like dozens of other B-movies with cheap CGI. The 3-D is torture — bring some aspirin.
Of course, Alexa Vega returns as trapped sister Carmen and, thank goodness, Ricardo Montalban pops in to reprise his role as Grandpa, providing advise and support to Juni in the video game. The Montalban segments are enjoyable, in part because when he trades threats with the Toymaker you can hear a bit of Khan in his voice, but mostly because of his outfitting. In real life, Montalban is reliant on a wheelchair, but in the virtual world, his head and shoulders get mounted on a large, robotic body. Watching the veteran actor bound about is a delight.
Watching Sly Stallone is a whole other experience. In addition to portraying the villain, he appears as three virtual aspects of his character: a scientist, a warmonger and a hippie. He approaches the characters with all the finesse of your great-grandfather slapping a mop on his head and acting like one of the Beatles. Ouch.
After what seems like hours, the action shifts to the real world and, in the last few minutes of the film, the entire family finally shows up, along with some members of the extended family, in what amounts to a cameo pile-up. Unfortunately, appearances by Antonio Banderas, Carla Cugino, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, Bill Paxton, Holland Taylor and Tony Shalhoub (cameos by Salma Hayek, Mike Judge, George Clooney, Alan Cumming and Elijah Wood are scattered throughout the story) only serve to further emphasize the interplay missing from the movie.
The positive messages intertwined with the story in the earlier films are simply announced at the end of this one. Those who sit through the closing credits of this sad little sequel will get to see the original screen tests for the two child actors next to footage of them today. Smarter viewers will skip Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over entirely and go see the wonderful Winged Migration at Key Cinemas instead.