Bubble Bursts

Cranking out a sequel worthy of 'Spy Kids' in such a short time proves more of a mission than filmmaker can handle.

Movie Review

August 07, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The sequel to a special-effects franchise as big as Spy Kids can take two or three years to get from drawing-board to screen. But writer-director-editor Robert Rodriguez has delivered Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams in a mere 17 months.

The birth is premature, and the defects are clear. The picture's physical growth outdistances its mental development. It lurches clumsily from one slapdash climax to another.

In the original Spy Kids, Rodriguez devised a Bond movie about family bonds, with Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as married former secret agents Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, who emerged from retirement to save a colleague and were captured themselves - paving the way for the rescue-team heroics of their own grade-school son and daughter, Juni and Carmen (Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega). The bonding and the Bondage meshed seamlessly, down to the obligatory colorful antagonist, a misguided TV personality named Floop (Alan Cumming), who tried to enlist everyone in his own personal fantasyland.

The result was more fun than any bona fide adult Bond movie since The Spy Who Loved Me.

Little of that effortless giddiness remains in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams. The best part is the introduction, set in an amusement park that follows dream logic instead of scientific engineering. The most sensational ride is the Juggler: It straps customers into bubbles and literally juggles them. When the daughter of the U.S. president boards the Juggler and puts herself in peril to get her dad's attention, Carmen and Juni attempt a rescue - and Juni couldn't be happier, since he has a crush on the first daughter. The high jinks in this opening are buoyantly attuned to raffish sixth-grade sensibilities.

But our heroes soon find they're competing for spy-kid glory with two better-equipped upstarts, Gary and Gerti Giggles (played by Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment), who turn out to be the children of OSS boss Donnagan (Mike Judge), the man Gregorio and Ingrid rescued in the first film. Once the movie leaves the amusement park, it turns into a hodgepodge of spluttering visual blowouts, sci-fi fantasy cliffhangers and after-school-special morality lessons.

Everyone eventually ends up on the island of the title, where a sad-sack scientist named Romero (Steve Buscemi) breeds hybrid creatures - for example, a snake-lizard, or "slizzard" - that grow beyond his control. (In a conceit that goes nowhere, Romero is depicted as a god afraid of his own handiwork.)

For reasons that become dramatically compelling only in the final minutes, Donnagan craves the cloaking device the scientist invented to keep his experiments secret; his son Gary will do anything to get it for him. Carmen weighs her instant infatuation with Gary against the increasing evidence that he's already a careerist jerk, while Gerti considers whether family loyalty outweighs doing the right thing.

Rodriguez, who also did the production design, digital photography and sound design, as well as supervising the visual effects and re-recording, and composing the score, may think he's taking his cue from the Juggler. But he doesn't even keep his initial bubble in the air. His biggest mistake is that he generated this film's mysterious island not to explore the daydreams of his characters but to exorcise his own obsessions with the dazzling stop-motion figures Ray Harryhausen molded out of clay and wire for classic creature features. (He even tries to re-create Harryhausen's skeleton army from the wizard's 1963 Jason and the Argonauts).

Rodriguez doesn't bring off this part of the movie even as a sideshow. He lacks the simultaneously fecund and perfectionist artistry of Harryhausen, and of George Lucas in Attack of the Clones; his digital hybrids lack both power and personality.

So do most of his human characters. As an outsized eccentric who's also supposed to illuminate the youthful heroes' inner lives, Romero isn't in the same league as Floop; for that matter, he isn't as resonant as Bill Paxton's expansive - and rotund - amusement-park impresario, Dinky Winks. (As Romero here and as Crazy Eyes in Mr. Deeds, Buscemi seems intent on playing the Fourth Stooge.)

The vaudevillian chemistry of the cast deteriorates into hamminess, and Rodriguez does nothing to protect them. Even the editing seems off when Gregorio grills Gary on whether he can dance well enough to partner Carmen. The family-bonding laughs are reduced to in-law jokes. Despite their radiant grandchildren, Ingrid's parents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban) still need proof that Gregorio is good enough for their daughter. Taylor and Montalban are great casting, but they have little to do except twinkle while Banderas burns.

Carmen and Juni are meant to learn that a gadget is only as worthy as the mind controlling it - the climax hinges on the value of a simple rubber band. But this film's narrative spaghetti undermines that theme.

In Spy Kids 2, Rodriguez tries to hold his family-spy saga together with the digital equal of rubber bands and chewing gum.

Spy Kids 2

Starring Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Rated PG

Time 100 minutes

Released by Dimensions

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