In Hollywood, Robert Rodriguez is nothing short of a legend.
At 23, he wrote, directed, filmed, edited and co-produced “El Mariachi” for a paltry $7,000. (He raised much of the money by serving as a medical guinea pig.)
Then, he turned around and, instead of making a few thousand in video distribution, as he believed he would, he saw major studios go into a frenzied bidding war, landing him an assured future in filmmaking and million-dollar profits.
Now, 10 years later, this multi-talented Texas native finds himself in the spotlight again. But, this time, it’s not because of guns and gringos.
It’s for his high-tech, family-friendly film, “Spy Kids.” Made for about $35 million, the film shot to the No. 1 spot and nearly made its money back during its opening weekend.
There’s already talk of a sequel.
Several things differentiate “Spy Kids” from children’s films produced in the past several decades. For one thing, the relationship between the siblings, Carmen and Juni, is rooted in reality.
The script doesn’t bowl the audience over by being too cutesy or sarcastic. (You don’t want to slap the child actors.)
The cultural references are kept to a minimum, as are the scatological references and the physical comedy. And, adults can actually sit through the film without groaning and watching the clock.
Rodriguez has brought back the family film in the truest sense of the term.
In a recent interview, this writer and director explained that this was the film he always wanted to make.
The third oldest of 10 children and now father of his own three boys, Rodriguez knows intimately how children interact and talk. He doesn’t make them sound like smart-aleck adults.
A product of the 1970s, Rodriguez said he enjoyed such films as “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” With “Spy Kids” he more than pays these films homage.
Audiences particularly get a taste of “Wonka” in the character of Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), with his strangely shaped and colorful sidekicks, ease with children, boy-child behavior and eccentric dress and behavior.
But Rodriguez’s vision partners the psychedelic wackiness of Roald Dahl with the tongue-in-cheek spy games of James Bond, the Roger Moore variety.
The film opens, quite stunningly, as Carmen (Alexa Vega) and her brother, Juni (Daryl Sabara), are getting ready for bed.
Before turning off the light, Carmen talks her mother, Ingrid (Carla Gugino), into telling them the story of how two international spies fell in love, got married and then left their careers behind so they could raise a family.
Little do the children realize, this is the story of their parents.
The former spies soon realize it’s difficult to stay out of the game, and after 10 years, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) gets called out of retirement. It seems a number of spies have gone missing without a trace. Could the disappearances be linked to the host of his son’s favorite television program?
Not long after the couple set off to investigate, they are captured. Finally, it’s up to the children to rescue their parents and save the world.
With “Spy Kids,” Rodriguez again outdoes himself. Not only does he write, direct, produce and edit the film, he also serves as the visual arts supervisor. And there’s plenty to oversee.
From the underwater sequences to the virtual reality room to the interior of Floop’s studio, this film serves up a special effects smorgasbord.
He’s aided in his endeavor by art director Ed Vega, production designer Cary White and set decorator Jeanette Scott, all of whom worked with Rodriguez before on “The Faculty.” The film looks great.
Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who has worked wonders before for director Guillermo del Toro and Rodriguez, again achieves the alchemy of the proper colors and light.
Composer Danny Elfman gives the film its theme, which is fun, bouncy and undeniably his. It’s one part “Batman” with two parts “Nightmare Before Christmas” stirred in.
For fans of this one-time front man for Oingo Boingo, there’s nothing that translates into “off-kilter children’s program” more than this composer. After all, where would “The Simpsons,” Tim Burton or Pee Wee Herman be without this composer’s signature sound?
The actors add their own majesty to “Spy Kids.” Cumming is about as wonderful as you can get. He can be menacing, nerdy, foppish, impish, lovable or, in this case, a combination of all of the above.
As Floop, he’s extravagant and worldly but still capable of relating to his child audience.
No matter what Banderas stars in, he is incapable of keeping his sex appeal under wraps. This man lights up any theater screen. But the beauty of his performance is that he can use this smoldering talent for comic effect.
Gugino holds her own, making an esthetic counterpart to her leading man. But then, her breakout role came in “Snake Eyes” as the looker in the blonde wig.
For his first screen role, Sabara makes an impression. However, that might just be his uncanny likeness to Peter Lorre.
Vega plays her character as both sassy and smart, giving young girls a positive role model.
Always a pleasure, Tony Shalhoub does well with a cameo role, as do Robert Patrick and Cheech Marin.
But, of all these actors, Danny Trejo, who plays Uncle Machete, gives the standout performance. Action film aficionados will recognize this convict turned actor from “Con Air” and “From Dusk Til Dawn.”
He usually plays someone’s henchman, a killer, vigilante or rapist. Here, he’s cast as the maker of spyware and Banderas’ estranged brother.
Finally, we get to see this actor’s soft side. The final scene is worth the ticket price alone.
Most adults will derive the most pleasure from “Spy Kids” by watching it with a preteen, because although it contains plenty of action. This film really is tailored for the younger set.
For the young-at-heart adult, it undoubtedly will bring back some fond memories.