There are countless things that animation can do better than live-action, so it’s a little frustrating when so many big-budget studio-produced cartoons focus on two in particular: making animals talk convincingly and constructing hyperbolic self-parodic action sequences. Both of these mainstream animation mainstays speak to the ways contemporary cartoons must try to appeal to kids and their parents. Children find fast-talking animals funny, while adults presumably enjoy recognizing the celebrity voices making with the jibber-jabber. Children can be occupied by ceaseless motion, while adults presumably enjoy (or at least don’t object to) pandering caricatures of “real” action-movie mechanics.
Blue Sky’s Spies In Disguise integrates these two tropes so seamlessly that it almost comes back around to inspired. The movie may claim to be a touching story about people needing other people for emotional support and encouragement, or a parable about finding nonviolent solutions to major world problems. But truly, at its core, it is about a Will Smith-voiced pigeon jibber-jabbering through hyperbolic action sequences.
Technically, Will Smith voices a human. He’s Lance Sterling, the kind of super-slick ultra-spy that kids’ movies are always reaching for (like, as recently as a couple of weeks ago), despite the fact that this spoof of an archetype has long since been turned into a bizarre abstraction. (It would be fascinating to ask a contemporary eight-year-old to describe the job of a spy, based entirely on movies constructed from spare parts of James Bond’s Roger Moore years.) Sterling drops into hot zones with unshakeable, Will Smith-y confidence, dispatches dozens of bad guys at once, and retrieves whatever briefcases of McGuffin weapons need retrieving—until he returns from a mission with an empty case, and realizes he’s been framed for treason.
Fleeing from skeptical and Minority Report-quoting fellow agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones, trying out Colin Farrell’s rhetorical question about why they always run), Sterling turns to agency outcast Walter Beckett (Tom Holland). Walter has recently been fired for tinkering with Sterling’s gadgets to make them non-lethal; he’s also the subject of the obligatory opening scene featuring a lead character as an adorably animated youngster, bonding with his cop mom (Rachel Brosnahan) and dreaming of helping people without violence. In the present, Walter accidentally doses Sterling with one of his most ambitious inventions: a substance that turns him into a common pigeon, designed to conceal him from enemies. To his credit, Walter and Walter alone seems to understand that spying actually involves avoiding detection, rather than smashing into a bad guys’ hideout wearing a tuxedo and a shit-eating grin.
Despite Walter’s above-average spycraft, Spies In Disguise isn’t exactly commenting on the weaknesses of its own well-worn tropes. Most of the time, it’s selectively ripping off the retro slickness of Brad Bird’s Incredibles movies and the understanding of animal psychology seen in so many other Pixar movies. But it does both of those things reasonably well, especially the pigeon-related slapstick. In his unwilling, frequently yelling pigeon form (which features an adorable little feather-marking that resembles a bow tie—a cute touch), Sterling gains the unwanted attention of a genuine flock: Walter’s adoring pet pigeon; a portlier variety; and a scraggly little weirdo who will mindlessly eat anything, including expensive spy gadgets.
First-time feature directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane do an admirable job working this hapless pigeon team into the logistics of would-be action sequences, and choreograph a fairly inventive final blow-out featuring an arsenal of Walter’s inventions. (They’re the finest slapstick weapons this side of what Tom Waits produces in Mystery Men.) But Spies In Disguise isn’t clever enough to reconcile the disingenuousness of setting off a litany of pointless explosions and battles before clarifying that this stuff is bad, actually.
Spectacle and even violence can be fine in a family film, but a director like Brad Bird knows how to use those things for well-engineered tension, all while taking advantage of animation’s freedom. So Spies In Disguise isn’t morally compromised so much as confused: The movie will be too intense for some smaller children, while plenty of older kids will likely prefer the more genuine thrills of Marvel or DC pictures. As for adults, it works well enough; Smith is engaged, the pigeons are funny, and the robot-armed bad guy (Ben Mendelsohn) is cool-looking. But like Blue Sky’s more actively irritating films, it’s made with a pervasive sense of the animation market, rather than the animators’ recognizable sensibilities.