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“Spies in Disguise” takes flight

spies4
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Animation
3stars
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Masi Oka, Reba McEntire
Directed by: Troy Quane and Nick Bruno
Release Date: Dec. 25, 2019

You think you’re one in a million? Well, Lance Sterling (voice of Will Smith), the lead character of “Spies in Disguise”, is one in 400 million.

Lance, naturally, isn’t too thrilled when he is turned into a pigeon by his spy agency’s tech prodigy Walter Beckett (Tom Holland). But Lance needs to lay low for a while. And, really, what is lower than a pigeon?

“Pigeons can be found in every major city around the world, and nobody notices them,” Beckett explains. “It is the most perfect form a spy could take.”

If kids’ animated films don’t proliferate at quite the same rate as pigeons, there still seems to be an alarming number of them flooding the marketplace each year. But as “Spies in Disguise” tells us, not all pigeons are created equal, and neither are all animated films. “Spies in Disguise” may look and sound like every other animated film you’ve seen this year but, like its avian hero, there is more going on under the surface than you might first think.

It doesn’t seem that way at first. For the first half hour or so, “Spies in Disguise” is a fairly straightforward spy story – complete with cool cars, exotic locations and maniacal villains pursuing world domination. Smith’s Sterling is James Bond mixed with a heaping dose of, well, Will Smith. When we first meet him, he is trying to track down an attack drone being trafficked by a Japanese arms dealer (Masi Oka).

Soon, Sterling is framed for stealing the drone, and he has Internal Affairs (in the form of Rashida Jones’ Marcy Kappel) breathing down his neck. He needs to disappear – hence the pigeon. And, since pigeons can only go so far without opposable thumbs, Beckett tags along with lone wolf Sterling to help save the world.

If you think the film is working towards a message about the importance of teamwork and relying on others, that’s certainly part of where scriptwriters Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor are going with this. But one of the pleasures of the script is how Copeland and Taylor stack messages inside of messages like a Russian nesting doll or layers of an onion. As you peel each outer layer away, the story becomes more profound and socially relevant than you would ever expect a pigeon spy movie to be.

spies1
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Animation

Consider, for example, our two leads – a classic odd couple with very different visions of how to play the spy game. Sterling is the classic old-school spy – suave, cynical and ready to fight fire with fire to protect innocents. Beckett is a Hollywood screenwriter’s take on a millennial – he even has an emotional support animal and eats gluten-free- and he has a hard time buying into Sterling’s hyper-masculine approach to conflict resolution.

“We can find a good way to stop the bad,” Beckett says.

“That’s a fantasy,” Sterling says. “When the bad guys hit you, you hit them back, and you hit them so hard that they don’t get back up. You’ve got to fight fire with fire.”

“When you fight fire with fire, we all get burned.” Beckett replies.

This conflict between the characters makes up the heart of the movie: Do we continue doing the same things we’ve always done and perpetuating a cycle of violence? Or do we search for creative non-violent solutions to our problems? Do we continue to view those around us as good and evil? Or do we make the conscious choice to view everyone as people and peacefully work through our disagreements?

It’s probably not spoiling much to say that the director of the spy agency (Reba McEntire of all people) only tells one of the characters that “We need more people like you” by the film’s end. And that character isn’t Sterling.

spies3
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Animation

The different approaches to conflict resolution are interesting, but not as much as the film’s moral center, which is this: In their acceptance of Walter and his creative, scientific, pacifist ways of resolving conflict, Copeland and Taylor are refuting long-standing cinematic stereotypes of what it means to be a man. Real men, they tell us, don’t seek out conflict but seek to resolve it. Real men put others – even their enemies- before themselves. Real men can like kittens and glitter and soap operas, and it doesn’t make them any less of a man.

There is more than one way to be a man, “Spies in Disguise” tells us. And there are better ways than what we’ve traditionally been taught.

Viewed through this lens, “Spies in Disguise” becomes less of an homage to James Bond and “Mission Impossible” and more of a meta-criticism of them. That’s kind of spectacular, I think.

Even as I’m writing this, I wonder if I am making “Spies in Disguise” out to be better and smarter than it actually is. This is, after all, a pigeon spy movie filled with all the requisite pigeon poop gags and slapstick action that a child’s heart could desire.

It is a film that, I imagine, appealed to the tween boys in my screening but didn’t have much to offer their sisters. Parents will never be bored, but they’re also never going to confuse this with top-tier Disney or Pixar.

The animation is slick and stylish, but not up to par with 2019’s best animated films. The jokes register mostly as mild chuckles rather than guffaws. It is a film that, for all its merits, I’m not going to be clamoring to see again anytime soon. It is sweet but slight.

spies2
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Animation

But, for its target audience, I imagine “Spies in Disguise” (rated PG for action, violence and rude humor) works exceptionally well – both as entertainment and as something deeper. And, living in a community where a local attorney frequently touts in his radio ads that you’re not a real man if you use emojis or know the lines to ‘Titanic’, I hope that the messages of “Spies in Disguise” stay with the boys in my screening long after memories of the film itself have faded.

Movies, even the most insubstantial ones, can influence the way we view the world. And, if a goofy pigeon spy movie can teach young boys how to be better men, better leaders and better people, who am I to give it a bad review?

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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