The Christmas movie countdown is in full swing. Jumanji:The Next Level and Frozen 2 are already packing them in, Cats and Star Wars:The Rise Of Skywalker arrive at the end of this week and there’s a trio of new arrivals lined up for Boxing Day – late presents, perhaps. Something traditional, a live action comedy and a new animation – although perhaps the latter isn’t quite as new as it looks.
The traditional is, of course, Greta Gerwig’s much-awaited Little Women, the comedy offers up John Cena as a fireman in Playing With Fire, while the animation is Spies In Disguise, the latest from Blue Skies. They’re all getting wide distribution but it’s the classic adaptation that’s been creating the buzz. Another reviewer will explain why. In the meantime, Spies In Disguise takes the secret agent format beloved of 70s TV and over 50 years’ worth of Bond movies, gives it a little contemporary twist and adds a sprinkle of celebrity, the most prominent of which is Will Smith. He voices agent Lance Sterling (not “Starling”. That would have been one bird pun too many.), the world’s best spy bar none, who is framed by arch villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) and needs to stop his efforts to wipe out the forces for good in the world. Geeky inventor Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) comes up with just what he needs – a potion that changes him entirely. Into a pigeon.
See what we mean about bird puns? Thankfully nobody puts the words “Walter” and “pigeon” together, although the grandparents in the audience for this slice of family fodder will make the connection. Sterling is, of course, a take on the most famous and best spy in the world, while the geeky Walter is more than a little reminiscent of Q, inventing all manner of gadgets to add to Sterling’s copious collection. The spy drives a flashy car, the adventure takes them to Venice – where else would you find enough pigeons so he can hide in plain sight? – and there’s plenty of the colourful, fast paced action you’d expect. It’s not trying to poke fun at the genre: instead, it’s a simple transfer to animation with a storyline and characters aimed at the family audience where the children are around 8 – 10. Anything less, and much of it will go over their heads.
The adults in the audience, however, will notice references in the direction of other movies. When Starling comes face to face – literally – with his doppleganger, it’s impossible not to think of Smith’s previous outing, Gemini Man. Holland’s nerdy character isn’t much more than a spider’s web away from his most famous creation and Killian’s facial injuries call to mind one of Batman’s arch enemies, Two Face. But essentially, it all boils down to a spy/Bond movie with pigeons – more Peck-ter than Spectre, then.
In truth, there’s nothing especially new about the film, but it does tell its story with enthusiasm and, in the action sequences, a whole lot of energy. Like so many other celebrity-voiced animations, few of them are actually recognisable. Smith is one that is, so is Karen Gillan by virtue of her native Scottish accent. You can just about identify Ben Mendelsohn but, after that, the rest are all much of a muchness. There are, inevitably, more than a clutch of pigeon jokes, yes, some to do with poo, but also visual gags about bright pink pigeon vomit.
Spies In Disguise doesn’t do anything new or different but, as entertainment for the holiday season goes, it’s well above average with enough laughs to keep everybody happy. And it potentially notches up two achievements. Will Smith could have another hit on his hands, after breaking his drought with Aladdin, and even Londoners might find room in their hearts for pigeons – yes, the film does refer to them as winged vermin. Those are bigger compliments than they sound.
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family | Cert: PG | 20th Century Fox | UK, 26 December 2019 | Dir. Nick Bruno, Troy Quane | The voices of Will Smith, Tom Holland, Ben Mendelsohn, Karen Gillan, D J Kahled.