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Film Review: “Spies in Disguise” Is Surprisingly Fun and Charming, If a Bit Ordinary

Written by: Matt Patti

Film poster: “Spies in Disguise”

Spies in Disguise (Nick Bruno/Troy Quane, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

“What if we took a world-famous spy and turned him into a pigeon?” is what was most likely heard by studio execs at Twentieth Century Fox in the pitch meeting for Spies in Disguise. I’m sure some were left scratching their heads, but apparently someone said “yes.” And thus, here we have Spies in Disguise. I watched three trailers for the film before my viewing, all of which had almost the same arrangement of scenes in them. The trailers didn’t impress me much and I went into the film with very low standards and minimal expectations. Fortunately, my expectations were actually exceeded.

Spies in Disguise opens with young Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Far from Home), a science whiz kid who is testing out many different weird inventions in his room. His mom pops in and assures him that he’ll change the world one day, and that being called “weird” is a good thing, because the world needs more weird. Fast forward to the present day where Beckett is now working as a tech innovator who makes weapons for spies in a spy agency. The best spy in the agency – and in the world – is Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith (Men in Black). When Sterling requests a way to make himself disappear, Beckett suggests he has just the thing. Unfortunately for Sterling, Beckett’s plan was not what he envisioned, turning Sterling into a pigeon rather than making him invisible. Sterling now needs Beckett and his wacky inventions’ help to stop a villain’s sinister plan and save the world.

Will Smith and Tom Holland in SPIES IN DISGUISE ©Twentieth Century Fox

The trailer for this film was seriously misleading, and probably on purpose to draw in kids. Surprisingly, the film is actually not just a slapstick comedy about a man-turned-pigeon with copious amounts of uninteresting, childish bird jokes. In fact, there were points in the film that I completely forgot about the whole pigeon premise. The main focus of the film is the relationship between Beckett and Sterling, an odd couple of sorts made up of a strong, hardheaded, stubborn action-hero spy and a nerdy yet intelligent and brilliant science whiz. The complexity doesn’t end there, though. The main conflict between these two characters is that Sterling resorts to gunfire, explosions, and fist fights to accomplish his goals while Beckett’s approach, being a pacifist, is just the opposite: wacky yet safe and harmless inventions. This struggle between the two characters was much more interesting than the pigeon transformation. Smith and Holland have seemingly great chemistry and voice their characters well.

The animation style the film employs fits perfectly. The animation is stellar, detailed, and far-reaching. It isn’t overly stylized in an anime-like style and doesn’t cut corners like many action-heavy animated films can and have done. The film instead plays out like a live-action film. The shots all look like choreographed shots that would take place in a non-animated film. For example, there are many more wide shots than we’re accustomed to seeing in animated films. There are also many simulated camera movements. The whole style makes the movie much more realistic.

DJ Khaled, Karen Gillan and Rashida Jones in SPIES IN DISGUISE ©Twentieth Century Fox

As great as the animation and the chemistry between the characters are, the movie does have quite a few faults. There are many way-too-easy situations and conveniences that happen throughout the film to progress the story along when the outcome did not feel earned. The villain, Killian, is ordinary, forgettable, and under-utilized. Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) – who has been landing main villain roles in both animation and live-action at a breakneck speed – voices Killian and does his best with what he is given. However, he isn’t given much and what he is given is not remarkable. The film also pretends to make bold decisions and then backs out of them at several points throughout the runtime. I kept being fooled into thinking that an interesting or gutsy decision was being made only for essentially a “just kidding!” to appear and burst my bubble.

Spies in Disguise was a much better film than I expected it to be. It exceeded my expectations by having an unexpected emotional weight to it and by the main characters’ interesting chemistry. The film faltered with some story elements being way too easy and way too predictable, and with a ho-hum villain and a lack of loyalty to some narrative decisions. Overall, it was a decently fun and enjoyable film with some great animation, great characters, and a great message about thinking outside of the box, even if the film stayed in the box a bit too much, itself.

Still from SPIES IN DISGUISE ©Twentieth Century Fox
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