Principal Cast : Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka, Carla Jiminez, Olly Murs.
Synopsis: When the world’s best spy is turned into a pigeon, he must rely on his nerdy tech officer to save the world.
Slick, hugely enjoyable animated B-movie delivers plenty of nice gags, a halfway decent villain and a splendid take on the buddy-comedy genre with Spies In Disguise, ostensibly a Will Smith project with the inclusion of Tom Holland, who has had a barnstorming 2020 with the streaming release of Onward, the Pixar film in which he also voices a lead character. Naturally, it contains a preposterous central premise – turning Will Smith’s uber-cool spy character into a pigeon – that works to serve as a character arc for growth, while the film gently pokes fun at the spy genre overall. It might not have the prestige of a Disney or Dreamworks film but it comes highly recommended and thoroughly endorsed as a quality film worth checking out.
Cocky secret agent Lance Sterling (Will Smith – Gemini Man) is sent to recover a secretive attack drone from a Japanese arms dealer; he fails to complete the mission thanks to the handiwork of powerful tech terrorist Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) and is forced to go on the run from his own organisation. Accompanying him is wannabe secret agent specialist Walter Beckett (Tom Holland – The Impossible, Spider-Man: Far From Home), a socially inept genius who assists Sterling with all manner of gadgets, including his chief invention, a DNA-altering drug that inadvertently turns Sterling into an anthropomorphic pigeon. Pursued by the dogged security agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones – I Love You, Man, Tag), Sterling and Beckett must uncover the clues to locate Killian’s secret lair and ultimately his hidden agenda, before it’s too late.
Birdy hi-jinks ensue in Spies In Disguise, a pleasantly entertaining film from 20th Century Fox – now owned by Disney – and debut directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, from a screenplay by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor. I half expected the film to be based on some kind of prior literature, a children’s book or cartoon series I wasn’t aware of, but truth be told Spies In Disguise is based (very loosely, apparently) on a similarly themed short film from 2009, Pigeon: Impossible. The idea of the film is pretty stock-standard for a buddy comedy spy film: one of the leads is a spy, the other isn’t but wants to be (or looks up to the spy), and as the film progresses we see growth in both the cocky spy, who learns to appreciate those he once considers “lesser” than he, and the newbie, who realises that his nerdy weirdness is a positive character trait rather than a negative one. It’s an endearing and altogether comfortable genre idea that gels moreso thanks to the solid voice talents and the dynamic animation rather than the screenplay, touching some tender moments of loss, grief and a sense of destiny and insight many animated films tend to skirt around.
Will Smith plays cocks like nobody else, as his Bad Boys franchise (among others) will attest, and he slips into Lance Sterling’s superspy arrogance with natural ease. He’s cool and knows it, and looks down at almost everyone else, especially Walter. Tom Holland’s Walter is the prototypical stammering nerd, a shy and insecure whizz-kid who is more at home at home with his inventions than in the field being shot at or chased. Throughout the film both leads get shoved firmly outside their comfort zone, most acutely Smith’s Sterling who is transformed into a pigeon for a vast majority of the movie. By removing Sterling as a physical force, having to use his brains and ingenuity rather than his incredible dexterity, the character is forced to grow beyond his superficial feelings to other, and to recognise that flying solo (pun intended) isn’t always the way to success. Conversely, giving Holland’s Walter Beckett a chance to find his action chops and sense of purpose makes him a compelling foil for Smith’s sarcastic wit, and where the role could have been played quite stereotypically, Holland ensures the character remains empathetic at all times, even when he’s not as endearing as we’d like. Their rapport is effortless and the humour mined from the various insane scenarios plays extremely well, especially for younger viewers.
Of course, if you want somebody to play a slimy, evil arch-nemesis for our heroes, you look no further than resident Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn, who plays this kind of role in his sleep. Recent nasty turns in Ready Player One, Rogue One, The King, Captain Marvel, Robin Hood (the 2018 one) and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises have allowed Mendelsohn to become a handy Bad Guy character actor, and his presence in the film anchors the stakes quite highly for our leads. The design work on his character is also excellent, making him a standout of the film overall. Supporting roles to Reba McEntire, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled (who has turned in a fair roster of on-screen acting roles of late) and Rashida Jones, the latter playing the Tommy Lee Jones-esque role of fugitive Sterling’s pursuer with aplomb, are fun and undemanding, accompanying the brisk, upbeat nature the film inhabits. Sure, there’s moments of pathos and true emotional heft sprinkled here and there, but you’d describe the film more as a comedy than an adventure film despite containing the tones of the latter far more prominently.
There’s laughs aplenty in Spies In Disguise, a keenly amusing and always fun spy comedy that offers undemanding gags and a slight but impressively executed story. Led by Smith and Holland, backed up by some excellent animation and Theodore Shapiro’s suitably brassy score (which reminded me of Michael Giacchino’s for The Incredibles, a film to which this one seems genetically tied) and a bevvy of sweet sidebar characters, Spies In Disguise is a heartfelt and eminently enjoyable lark that will become a go-to flick for lazy Sunday afternoons for many an housebound family.
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