'Spies in Disguise': Film Review

A one-joke affair.
12/25/2019

Will Smith, Tom Holland and Ben Mendelsohn voice the main characters in a computer-animated film from Fox Animation.

Disney will take the money and run from Spies in Disguise. Inherited from Fox when the studio was gobbled up by its crosstown rival, this manic piece of spy vs. spy mayhem is narratively challenged in a major way and resembles nothing Disney itself would have made on its own. Undemanding young viewers will go with the flow and laugh at all the obvious, albeit mostly lame, gags, and the combination of Will Smith and Disney over the holidays assures a quick but lucrative haul.

Inspired by a six-minute 2009 short by Lucas Martell called Pigeon: Impossible that bears little resemblance to its big-bucks offspring — other than for a bird’s inadvertent mucking about in top-secret warfare technology — this is a rambunctious international adventure yarn equipped with very little of the narrative care that goes into most of Disney’s own animated ventures. 

Antic and frantic, Spies is very much a one-joke affair, which is fine for a short but woefully insufficient for a 101-minute feature. The joke, which is funny for a couple of minutes, is that Lance Sterling (Smith), American secret agent supreme, is inadvertently turned into a blue pigeon by precocious young science genius Walter (Tom Holland), whose attempts at creating an invisibility potion have gone a bit astray. 

Very proud of his physical attributes, most notably his bulging shoulders and chest, which his long spindly legs hardly seem like quite enough to support, Lance insists that his colleagues “unbird” him at once, but Walter hasn’t quite gotten the hang of that yet. There’s a mad dash through Washington, D.C., to push the action quotient at the expected level, whereupon it’s off to wannabe exciting interludes at a Mexican resort, a secret weapons lab in the North Sea and then Venice, where Lance meets a great many more pigeons. Under the circumstances, maybe he would have been happier just staying there instead of heading home again.

What’s striking about the script by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, from a screen story by Cindy Davis, is how exceptionally unmotivated the whole story is. Numerous excuses are invented for big action sequences all over the world, but it never feels like there’s a rhyme or reason to where the characters are going or what they’re doing once they arrive. Yes, there’s a supervillain of sorts, a terrorist named Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) who’s into weaponized drones, but he and all the rest of the goons could not be more generic. Little kids playing good guys and bad guys could come up with something this basic on a moment’s notice, and there’s no special dimension or plain old imagination here to generate genuine engagement or even just old-fashioned fun.

With Smith voicing the lead, things can’t be all lame all the time, and he does get off some nice bons mots and amusingly egocentric remarks from time to time. However, his preening and condescension quickly become overbearing, and if you can’t even muster a sense of risk for your characters that’s at least artificially engaging, a larky action-suspense piece is going to leave a good deal to be desired. 

Production companies: Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Chernin Entertainment
Distributor: Disney
Voice cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Directors: Troy Quane, Nick Bruno
Screenwriters: Brad Copeland, Lloyd Taylor, screen story by Cindy Davis, inspired by the animated short film 
Pigeon: Impossible by Lucas Martell
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Michael J. Travers
Executive producers: Chris Wedge, Kori Adelson
Production designer: Michael Knapp
Editors: Randy Trager, Christopher Campbell

Rated PG, 101 minutes