Will Smith’s experiment with acting opposite a digital composite of his younger self in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” didn’t exactly light the world on fire. So it’s nice that he’s closing the year on a more positive note, with the insubstantial but lightly entertaining animated spy feature “Spies in Disguise.”
Longtime animation artists Nick Bruno and Troy Quane make their directorial debuts on the film, which takes its premise from the 2009 animated short by Lucas Martell, “Pigeon: Impossible.” Therein lies all you need to know about “Spies in Disguise,” a strange tonal mashup that turns the hypermasculine, hyperviolent world of glamorous spies (in the vein of James Bond) into kid-friendly family entertainment.
But what becomes apparent is that introducing and then skewering those tropes is at the heart of “Spies in Disguise,” a film that wonders if conflict could be cuddlier, and if lone wolves can work as a team, or perhaps, a flock.
Smith voices the smooth Lance Sterling, super spy and the star of his agency, headed up by a tough talking Southern-twanged boss, Joy Jenkins (Reba McEntire). On a mission fighting a nefarious supervillain with a robotic hand (Ben Mendelsohn), he discovers that one of his exploding gadgets has been replaced with kitty holograms and glitter, which are surprisingly effective at incapacitating his would-be assassins, who are overcome with “awww.” Though Sterling emerges victorious, he seeks out the oddball tech who slipped him the kitty glitter, Walter (Tom Holland), and fires him.
The tables are turned when the arrogant Sterling needs Walter’s help to go underground, finding himself at the center of an internal affairs investigation led by the hard-hitting Marcy (Rashida Jones), who has accused Sterling of theft and sabotage. At Walter’s home lab, Sterling gulps down a mysterious liquid and finds himself transformed into a pigeon. On the run from his own agency in avian form, Sterling’s going to have to learn to use his wings.
Walter is a wunderkind scientist who firmly believes in nonlethal weapons: balloons that wrap you up in an inflatable hug, sticky bubblegum that stops anyone in their tracks. It takes time for Lance to get on board, but the advantages of life as a pigeon spy soon reveal themselves. It’s through his friendship with Walter, and with help from feathered friends, that Lance learns to embrace friendlier methods too.
There’s a message of teamwork at the center of “Spies in Disguise,” but what makes it subversive is its emphasis on gentler methods of conflict resolution. It’s refreshing to see bubblegum and kitty glitter defeat murderous robots. But “Spies in Disguise,” despite a fun chemistry between Smith and Holland, is a lot like a soap bubble: entertaining for a bit, but disappearing on contact.
Spies in Disguise
Two and a half stars
Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Reba McEntire
Written by: Brad Copeland, Lloyd Taylor
Directed by: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes