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Family Movie Review: Spies in Disguise (PG)

Will Smith’s great voice work elevates the surprisingly amusing ‘Spies in Disguise.’

Kernel Rating: 3.5 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 102 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 8+. The animated spy caper pairs an elite secret agent with a tech whiz kid as they race to save the world — all while the secret agent is accidentally transformed into a pigeon. Some bathroom humor, including jokes about pigeon anatomy and “number one and number two”; a good amount of action sequences and violence, including police swarming a house, a plan to reveal the identities of secret agents and kill them, falls from high heights, a beloved character is shown to have died, and the possibility that a human’s transformation into a pigeon might not be reversed; characters drink alcohol; and some flirting, with a female pigeon flirting with the agent turned into a bird, and some non-sexual nudity, with an extended played-for-laughs sequence of a man’s naked behind, shown in various detail and magnification.

By Roxana Hadadi

What is the more effective way of solving problems: through eliminating threats, or through trying to reach a collaborative solution? Those opposing ideas — one that prioritizes violence, and the other that suggests cooperation — are at the heart of “Spies in Disguise,” which has surprising depth for an animated buddy comedy. The film’s questions about learning to trust others, accept new ideas, and work together are given as much attention as the movie’s hijinks involving an elite spy transforming into a street pigeon, and that combination makes for a surprisingly enjoyable balance.

SpiesInDisguise1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReview“Spies in Disguise” focuses on two very different people: Elite spy Lance (voiced by Will Smith), who is used to operating on his own, taking down gangs of criminals entirely by himself. He’s also used to the awe and hero worship that comes with his position — coworkers swooning when he walks by, special treatment from colleagues, and getting away with breaking protocol. He is at the highest rung of his workplace, while tech lab geek Walter (voiced by Tom Holland) is probably at the lowest, with a small corner of space to work near the bathroom and coworkers who constantly call him a “weirdo.” And when one of Walter’s gizmos — a bomb that explodes glitter and an image of a kitten’s face, meant to flood bad guys with happy feelings so they stop fighting — surprises Lance on the job, he takes it upon himself to fire the kid.

But when Lance is accused by Agent Marcy (voiced by Rashida Jones) of the agency’s internal affairs of stealing a device that could be used to kill all the spies in the field, it’s only Walter who can help Lance clear his name. And things take an unexpected turn when the secret tool Walter was working on, which he had boasted had the power of making its user “invisible,” ends up being a potion that turns a person into a pigeon. After Lance drinks it, the super-suave spy is turned into a somewhat awkward, somewhat bumbling bird, one who can still talk like Lance but who can’t really act like Lance. This unlikely pair ends up on the trail of baddie Killian (voiced by Ben Mendelsohn), who is framing Lance, while they also try to stay one step ahead of Marcy and her team.

Much of the humor in “Spies in Disguise” comes from Smith’s vocal performance, which is enthusiastic and engaged, with a lot of verve and gusto. Smith nails the emotional range of a character who is used to being the person in charge and who must deal with being, literally, shrunk down to size, and he has a good companion in Holland, who imbues Walter with the same sort of youthful naivete as he does for Peter Parker. “You can bird me, but you can’t stop me,” Lance swears, and his single-mindedness contrasts well with Walter’s hopefulness. The film also uses to good effect a variety of visual gags regarding Lance’s transformation, such as a human hand that remains baby-sized and his wide-set bird eyes, and the other birds that join Lance’s “flock” add some humor with their varyingly flirty or goofy personalities.

Still, “Spies in Disguise” lasts a little too long, and like many animated films, relies on an overly long battle scene to serve as a conclusion. It’s amusing to see so many of Walter’s zany creations used in the field, but after a certain point, the glitter explosions, sticky traps, and murderous drones all blend together. Before then, though, the movie has a lightness in its humor and a thoughtfulness in its discussion of how to solve problems that makes “Spies in Disguise” a good family pick this holiday season.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.   

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