Review: Animated Spies in Disguise Could Use a Dose of Danger

Well, this animated action-adventure featuring the vocal stylings of Will Smith and Tom Holland doesn’t have a particularly memorable or impressive look or story, but it has a great personality. The basic premise of Spies in Disguise is that the world’s greatest spy, Lance Sterling (Smith), stumbles upon one of his agency’s quirkier tech people, Walter Beckett (Holland), whose job it is to develop gadgets and weapons for spies. But Walter has believed since he was a kid that the key to disarming bad guys isn’t violence but cuteness, like images of oversize kittens or glitter bombs—and he has the science to back it up.

Spies in Disguise
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Not long after Walter is fired for being a little too creative, Lance is framed for alleged terrorist activity by a super villain named Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, of course), who commands an army of weaponized drones and also possesses a program that makes it possible for him to change his face into other people, such as Lance. Fellow agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) is sent to capture Lance (along with two sidekicks, voiced by Karen Gillan, using her actual, wonderful Scottish accent, and DJ Khaled, who is thankfully not given many lines), forcing Lance to go to the only person he thinks he can trust, Walter, who happens to be working on a type of invisibility formula.

When Lance accidentally drinks said formula, it transforms him into a talking pigeon (since pigeons are everywhere and no one pays attention to them, they are effectively invisible…get it?), and he must stay that way until Walter can develop an antidote. But before long, Lance begins to see the benefits of his new form and decides to seek out who is framing him rather than wait to be changed back. Taking Walter and his unconventional gadgets with him, Lance sets out in search of the mysterious Killian, with Agent Kappel in hot pursuit trying to make sense of it all.

Spies in Disguise is an unusual bird itself, having been made by Twentieth Century Fox Animation but being distributed by Disney, whose unique animation sensibilities aren’t anywhere to be seen in this particular work. The combination of Smith and Holland certainly adds a great deal of energy and fun to the proceedings, but it’s almost undercut by the presence of such vocal duds as Khaled and Reba McEntire as the spy agency’s boss. Not that every successful animated feature has to come from Disney; there are a few touches here that worked for me, including Walter’s fierce commitment to peace-loving ways of fighting international terrorism, and the rather sad reasons for Killian turning bad in the first place.

First-time feature directors Nick Bruno (previously a prolific animator) and Troy Quane (a former storyboard artist) and screenwriters Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor should have taken one more pass at the story to eliminate some of the generic spy cliches and gone for something with a bit more quirk. The characters are sent all over the world in their pursuit, but it all seems so random, listless and nonsensical that I basically gave up paying attention to the rhyme or reason of the plot and just waited for the weird stuff to happen.

I can’t imagine Disney is considering a sequel for this film, but if they are, they might have a bit more luck with more established characters when they don’t have to deal with explaining who these characters are. If they’d let their freak flags fly and maybe even dared to introduce a sense of danger, this might have been a standout family film for the holiday break; at it stands, it’s a bit of a passable bit of flashy animation fluff. Certainly not an all-out disaster, but it has lots of room for improvement.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.