What if James Bond, but he’s a pigeon? This crazy premise doesn’t sound all that enticing, but what if I told you that’s just the lede for 20th Century Fox’s animated spy action-adventure family film Spies in Disguise. First time feature directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane with a script from Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor craft a tale, adapted from the animated short film Pigeon: Impossible from Lucas Martell, that’s a straight-up spy film with a heart, specifically the message of “hugs, not fists.” Considering the state of the world at the moment, we’d all be better served to remember this message, which is why the release on Christmas is perhaps the best possible timing for a film dropping so late in the year. The narrative execution is the key element of what makes Spies in Disguise work, pulling audiences in with a silly premise and then giving them something both action-packed and heartwarmingly sweet, anchored by a strong cast.
Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) is an inventor of non-violent gadgets: bombs which project glitter and holographic kitties as assailants, string with high viscosity and tensile strength, and a fast-inflating protective bubble, to name a few. Off brand as they are, not many within the Agency want to work with him, which is why top spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) fires him after one of the glitter kitty bombs nearly gets Lance killed on a mission. But when Internal Affairs officer XX (voiced by Rashida Jones) suspects Lance of turning traitor, Walter becomes the only person Lance can turn to. Things go from bad to worse for Lance when he’s accidently turned into a pigeon after unintentionally ingesting one of Walter’s experimental gadgets. As the duo has agents good and bad closing in, they either need to come together or risk the fate of the world.
Because Spies in Disguise is an animated feature, there’s a certain expectation of silliness to go along with the proceedings and the film delivers. You’ve got physical comedy from Lance’s physical transformation as he comes to grips with his corporeal condition, as when the always professional and super cool Lance suddenly feels the compulsion to eat food left on the ground. It’s disgusting, but not in a low-hanging fruit, gross-out kind of way. As presented by Bruno and Quane, it’s played straight and Smith’s always engaging vocal delivery sells the absurdity. Then there’s the presentation of Walter, a brilliant kid whose idealism often gets in the way of engaging with the world. The audience is guided to laugh at the situations Walter finds himself instead of being directed to laugh *at* him, such as when he convinces himself he can do parkour by recognizing it’s just a physics problem. That moment is hilarious, as is its outcome, but it’s significant that Bruno and Quane make sure that neither Walter nor Lance are diminished in any way in the eyes of the audience. The story isn’t keen on humiliating either character in order to make its point, which is absolutely refreshing, especially considering the lengths the film goes at various times to craft hilarity, the lack of pointed or denigrating comedy is essential to Spies in Disguise.
The easy presumption as to why Bruno and Quane dodge the easy comedy in favor of something more emotionally weighty can be identified in the style of the film. By style, I’m not simply referring to the character design wherein realistic anatomy is traded for rounded facial features and sharp physical lines, or the score by Theodore Shapiro which evokes other spy thrillers like Dr. No, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Spy Game, though these elements certainly help. It’s that the film as a whole is designed like a serious spy thriller which just so happens to include its spy character being mutated into a pigeon. If you miss it in the Lance Sterling introduction pre-credits sequence which sees him infiltrate a weapons buyer’s stronghold, then you’ll catch it in the James Bond-esque musical credit sequence. These are more than homages to a genre. Bruno and Quane use them to signal expectations and they deliver in spades. Seriously, the opening sequence is a high-point action set piece wherein Lance takes on countless Yakuza soldiers without batting an eye and it only gets better from there.
What sets Spies in Disguise apart from the traditional spy thriller, however, is the focus on “hugs, not fists,” which is first communicated in Walter’s pre-credits sequence opening the film. A spy may use their talents to prevent global annihilation, but there’s no reason why their spy-craft can’t be funneled through protection instead of destruction. More pointedly, the film implies that violence just perpetuates a cycle of violence that creates bigger bad guys and necessitates the need for stronger good guys and that the desire for protection over destruction makes someone weird or abnormal, when, in truth, hate for a person is taught. Love, protection, and trust are innate. This is what sets Spies in Disguise apart from other holiday releases and why the film is a perfect holiday entertainment retreat. While there is the typical opposites-forced-to-work-together trope, none of the rest of the film feels forced in either narrative, character development, or humor. Everything evolves naturally as the situation calls for it. This isn’t to suggest that there are some internal questions the film never addresses (like how an agent on the run can use his personal spy gear without getting tracked by his former bosses), but these are minor quibbles compared to the amount of fun you’ll have watching Walter’s various pacifist tools in action.
So when it comes to the holidays, know that you’re in good hands with Agents Sterling and Beckett. Even if the outcome is obvious (it is a kid’s film, after all), there’re still a great deal of surprises within that will induce laughter and tug at the heartstrings. Most importantly, it creates an opportunity to discuss the true meaning of the holiday season: love for all, peace for all. For no matter our differences, all we want to do is keep our loved ones safe. Choose hugs, not fists.
In theaters December 25th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.