The fourth Spy Kids movie is another imaginatively hyperactive cinematic sugar-rush from writer/director Robert Rodriguez, this time enhanced with “4D” Aroma-Scope technology.
That means along with 3D glasses you’ll get a scratch-and-sniff card with numbers corresponding to onscreen visual cues. The cards were still in development and not quite up to “sniff” at a pre-release screening, which was odd considering that the same gimmick (then known as Odorama) was used 30 years ago in the John Waters movie Polyester.
The action gets off to an appropriately absurd start when leather-clad and nine-months-pregnant spy Marissa (Jessica Alba) refuses to let her condition keep her from going after the Timekeeper, a hammily overdramatic supervillain. Alba zip-lines from above and goes in crazy car-chase pursuit while talking on the phone to husband Wilbur (Joel McHale), a doofus TV personality who doesn’t know Marissa is a secret agent.
Back home, Marissa’s resentful, pranks-playing stepdaughter Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and her more easygoing stepson Cecil (Mason Cook) are similarly unaware that Marissa isn’t an interior decorator. The precocious preteens also don’t realize their dog Argonaut is really a robot (amusingly voiced by Ricky Gervais), until he is called into action to protect them during an attack by the Timekeeper’s comic-book-outrageous henchmen.
Enjoyably campy overacting, insanely elaborate CGI special effects and an air of playful preposterousness are hallmarks of the Spy Kids movies. The series went wrong with 2003’s Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, much of which took place in a fantasy videogame world. Fortunately, the newest installment harkens back to the first (and by far best) Spy Kids by emphasizing family dynamics along with the fantasy hijinks. That’s not to say anything here could be mistaken for realism, even in would-be emotional moments of the “remembering dead mom” variety.
In a nice continuity touch, Marissa’s niece and nephew turn out to be the original spy kids Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara). Because 10 years have passed since the first movie was made (time flies, huh?), Carmen and Juni are now adult agents at the agency where Marissa works.
What starts out as a colorfully manic spy-vs-spy adventure gets off track near the end with a gloomy subplot about a character who keeps going back in time to be with the father he misses. Besides weighing the movie down with inappropriate melancholy and adult regret, this secondary story also make no logical (or chronological) sense.
On the plus side, Rodriguez fills the CGI-enhanced action scenes with an amusement park’s worth of cool gadgets, vehicles and settings. In one of the best high-speed segments, Rebecca and Cecil use one-person escape jets to flee their under-siege house, then turn Cecil’s airsickness into a positive by bombarding their pursuers with puke-bag bombs. If you’re looking for sophisticated humor, in other words, this isn’t exactly Midnight in Paris.
In a nice touch, Marissa’s stepson Cecil is hearing impaired, but no mention is made of his condition being a disability. In fact, his sign language skills and hearing aid actually come in handy. And Marissa’s pudgy infant daughter — identified only as “Spy Baby” — is funny even when she’s just hanging around or picking her nose. No computer effects required.