The 2010s have been an amazing decade for animation, but before the decade’s end we got one more cartoon to tide us over. “Spies in Disguise” is the first release from Blue Sky Studios under Disney ownership as it was inherited with the acquisition of Fox and also their first feature since 2017’s “Ferdinand”. Based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short “Pigeon: Impossible”, “Spies in Disguise” stars Will Smith as secret agent Lance Sterling who is framed by a mysterious terrorist mastermind named Killian (Ben Mendelsohn). On the run from his own agency, Lance seeks the help of an up-and-coming tech genius named Walter, played by Tom Holland, who implements a new tool in his arsenal turning Lance into a pigeon to hide in plain site as the two hunt Killian down. So, does the final animated release of 2019 stick the landing or leave the industry with a whimper? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Spies in Disguise”.
“Spies is Disguise” is a fun mix of different elements that work in almost every animated film. Unique character designs, colorful set pieces, and a fast-paced narrative all come together to make this movie a nice package especially from a studio like Blue Sky which has lived in the shadow of DreamWorks and Pixar pretty much from the start. Will Smith and Tom Holland lead a diverse cast that includes the likes of Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, and DJ Khaled (because God forbid he not be in a movie at least once or twice a year these days). Smith and Holland are really the centerpieces though and their vocal work is very well done. Smith plays Agent Lance Sterling who turns to Holland’s Walter for help and thus the two end up being unwilling partners. What’s cool is that Smith and Holland, one being an experienced actor and the other a relative newcomer of the last decade, are a perfect fit for their respective roles seeing as one’s character is an experienced agent and the other trying to earn his place in the trade.They play off each other nicely through their adventure with convincing banter provided by a fun yet simple script. The rest of the cast certainly has fun with their parts too, but it’s really Smith’s and Holland’s show and they do a fine job holding it together and keeping you engaged the whole way through. I’d actually like to see these two work together more because it sounds like they had a lot of fun behind the scenes working off each other.
As a story “Spies in Disguise” isn’t anything special really. It is however a neat introduction for any young movie fan to the idea of movie spies and James Bond-esque story lines. The locations created for this movie are colorful and well designed and the characters, while not always memorable, are polished and have their own unique styles. It’s a fun movie visually with great animation and non-stop action but the twists and turns are pretty standard, and you can see a lot of the big moments coming from a mile away. Even then, the cliches kind of work and aren’t too distracting. Walter’s gadgets are pretty fun to see in action although they are very much designed to be kid friendly and add some comedic flair to the adventure while toning down the violence. In fact a major theme of this movie is that Walter wants to convince Sterling that violence isn’t always the answer and while the film doesn’t really take full advantage of this lesson, in fact it almost downright drops it at several points, it does help inject some heart into the narrative to give “Spies in Disguise” that extra level of maturity needed to be more than just a simple waste of time.
While I could go further discussing the derivative nature of the writing the real problem with this movie is the villain and, as the saying goes, a movie is only as good as its bad guy. In this film that villain is Killian, played by who else by Ben Mendelsohn who seems to play at least 75% of movie villains these days..just one more cliche this movie embraces that also kind of pays off because the voice acting does match the character well. While Killian sports a great and memorable design, including a bionic arm, his story is barely touched on and his beef with Lance Sterling feels underdeveloped. This relationship is meant to help drive home Walter’s “violence doesn’t solve things” philosophy by showing Sterling the error of his ways but we never see what actually transpired nor are we given any reason to believe Killian is or used to be redeemable so it’s difficult to care about his story. His plan is the same old revenge plot we’ve seen in countless spy and superhero movies of today and yesterday and despite his intimidating character design and Mendelsohn’s always haunting voice he never really feels like a threat to our heroes and there’s never any doubt of whether he will win or lose. There are a lot of clichés and underdeveloped elements of this movie, mostly to keep things simple for the target audience, but Killian is by far the most criminal of all of these sins.
All in all, “Spies in Disguise” is a pretty simple movie to sum up. It really isn’t terrible, it’s just predictable. In fact, it’s actually much better than many of this year’s animated films even in spite of it’s predictability and cliches because of its relatively original story, a kinetic energy and how it uses its clichés properly while still succeeding in establishing its own identity. It’s a harmless waste of time with enough to offer to keep adults engaged while children appreciate the colorful atmosphere, fun voice work and script and entertaining, if derivative, story. If only it had a better villain to help cap it all off maybe it would have reached a higher plane. For what it is though it’s perfectly acceptable. Blue Sky Studio’s has always had a knack for providing these kinds of movies, ones that aren’t too challenging but also aren’t horrible products. “Ice Age” and its sequels, “Horton Hears a Who”, “Rio”, “Robots”, “Ferdinand”, and arguably their best film “The Peanuts Movie”…they’re all relatively harmless movies. “Spies in Disguise” is only the latest in that growing collection of acceptably simple yet enjoyable cinematic entertainment.