Will Smith has had a hit or miss year at the movies. Though “Aladdin” was a huge hit, his experiment with high-frame-rate action and acting opposite a digital composite of his younger self in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” didn’t exactly light the world on fire. So it’s nice that he’s closing out the year on a more positive note, with the insubstantial but lightly entertaining animated spy feature “Spies in Disguise.”
Longtime animation artists Nick Bruno and Troy Quane make their directorial debuts on the film, written by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor. The film takes its premise and inspiration from the 2009 animated short “Pigeon: Impossible” by Lucas Martell, and therein lies all you need to know about “Spies in Disguise,” a strange tonal mashup that takes the hypermasculine and hyperviolent world of glamorous espionage, in the vein of James Bond or “Mission: Impossible,” and turns it into kid-friendly family entertainment.
What becomes apparent is that introducing and then skewering those tropes is at the heart of “Spies in Disguise,” a film that wonders if conflict could be cuddlier and if lone wolves can work as a team or perhaps a flock. Smith voices the smooth Lance Sterling, super spy and the star of his agency headed up by a tough talking Southern-twanged boss, Joy Jenkins (Reba McEntire). On a dangerous mission fighting a nefarious supervillain with a robotic hand (Ben Mendelsohn), he discovers that one of his exploding gadgets has been replaced with kitty holograms and glitter, which are surprisingly effective at incapacitating his would-be assassins. Though Sterling emerges victorious, he seeks out the oddball tech who slipped him the kitty glitter, Walter (Tom Holland), and fires him.
The tables are turned when the arrogant Sterling needs Walter’s help to go underground, after finding himself at the center of an internal affairs investigation led by the hard-hitting Marcy (Rashida Jones), who has accused Sterling of theft and sabotage. At Walter’s home lab, Sterling gulps down a mysterious liquid and transforms into a pigeon. On the run from his own agency in avian form, Sterling’s going to have to learn to use his wings, and fast.
Walter is a wunderkind scientist who firmly believes in nonlethal weapons: protective balloons that wrap you up in an inflatable hug, sticky pink bubblegum that stops anyone in their tracks. It takes time for Lance to get on board, but the advantages of life as a pigeon spy soon reveal themselves. It’s through his friendship with Walter, and with the help of a few feathered friends, that Lance learns to embrace friendlier methods too.
There’s a warm message of companionship and teamwork at the center of “Spies in Disguise,” but what makes it subversive is its emphasis on gentler methods of conflict resolution, or at least less bloody ones. It’s refreshing to see bubbles, bubblegum and lots of kitty glitter defeat deadly robots. “Spies in Disguise,” despite a fun chemistry between Smith and Holland, is a lot like a soap bubble: pretty to watch, entertaining for a bit, but disappears on contact. It’s entertaining but ephemeral.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
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