When it comes to wrapping a message inside its outlandish visuals, the animated movie is the most notorious culprit. And something like Spies In Disguise can try to relay to its young audience that it’s OK to rely on another for emotional support, that there are non-violent solutions to major world problems, that your physical and/or intellectual differences to your peers doesn’t have to stifle a friendship. But really, deep down in its centre, Spies In Disguise is just about Will Smith going through the motions as a pigeon, talking his standard jargon among self-parodic action sequences.
Technically, Smith voices a human – Lance Sterling – a slick, super-spy who can effortlessly take out dozens of men without so much as breaking a sweat, all the while sprouting typical Will Smithian showman-type dialogue. His latest mission, which even highlights Sterling’s (or is that Smith’s?) egomaniacal manner by accompanying his fight sequence with his very own soundtrack (hey Alexa, play “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”), is to retrieve a McGuffin-heavy briefcase which, we assume, will deter a global war of sorts.
Mission: not so successful, as it turns out. When Sterling cocksurely returns to his agency to hand over the case to his superior (voiced by Reba McEntire) he’s shocked to learn it’s empty. Oh, and he’s been framed for treason. On the run from fellow agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones), Sterling turns to agency outcast Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a recently-fired scientist who tinkered with Sterling’s gadgets in a bid to make them non-lethal; we learn in the opening sequence that young Walter’s penchant for all-things-nice stems from his suitably adorable bond with his mother (Rachel Brosnahan, in little more than a vocal cameo), a police officer who preached of creating a hopeful world without violence.
Because Sterling seems unaware that playing the showman, making loud entrances, and flashing a shit-eating smile whilst doing so is the very opposite of what a secret agent should be striving for, it only makes sense that he be completely taken aback when Walter informs him that he has created a substance that will help conceal Sterling’s identity. Sure, a minor glitch means the show-pony agent is transformed into a pigeon, but stereotypical villainous types aren’t going to suspect a short-necked bird flying around, are they?
It’s a concept that could work, but the Brad Copeland/Lloyd Taylor-script never really delves beyond the shallows of its premise. That being said, as light and undemanding Spies In Disguise is, it proves also incredibly bizarre in its depictions of what constitutes as age-appropriate humour. In addition to the sensory overload of visuals, dialogue such as “I’m going to science all over your face”, a comedy gag involving a naked Japanese arms dealer (tattooed behind and all), and the side-arc of Sterling-in-pigeon-form earning the affections of a fellow lady bird suggest darker, more adult-skewered humour that, perhaps, the screenwriters weren’t quite expecting to be as problematic as it is when you boil it down to the core ideals; Sterling may be a pigeon in body, but he’s still very much a man so even the implication that he would entertain a fellow bird’s advances is troublesome, to say the least.
Whilst i’m sure Spies In Disguise will earn some family coin over the holiday period (it opens New Year’s Day here in Australia), young children may find it a tad too intense, and older kids will likely view it as Marvel/DC-lite and will just want to wait out for the next big studio offering. Audiences that linger in between will probably temporarily surrender to the film’s simplistic, Incredibles-knockoff temperament for the dizzying 102 minutes before forgetting much of what they endured.