Grade: B
Rated PG
Animation

Spies in Disguise is surprisingly entertaining . . . and surprisingly adult for an animated children’s feature that parents can also watch without being bored out of their skulls.

The bare rear end of a very large man is shown as he’s caught taking a bath. A man whose hand has shrunk because of a chemical transformation peeks inside his pants and screams. A man turned into a pigeon talks about #1 and #2 coming out of the same place. Characters sip martinis and champagne. And Yakuza down shots and take plenty of shots at heroes, with violence ramped up to take full advantage of the cover that animation provides. If this were live action it would easily merit a PG-13 rating.

Then again, if this were live action, it would be more of a challenge to tackle the main premise of Spies in Disguise: a nerdier version of “Q” (voiced by Tom Holland), mocked because of always wanting to invent “nice” devices for conflict resolution rather than the lethal ones his agency wants, is fired for slipping his “kitty glitter bomb” into the field kit of superspy Lance Sterling (Will Smith). When Sterling is framed and is deemed a rogue agent, he seeks Walter’s help to make him “disappear”—but the formula doesn’t make him invisible. It turns him into a pigeon.

Kids will take delight in the pigeon transformation and the rendering of birds in this 13th feature from Fox Animation Studios (Ice Age, Rio, The Peanuts Movie). And hey, so will adults. There’s a “cute” factor that this film has that works as a buffer for the violence and adult elements.

With Rio, Fox Animation took a huge step forward into Disney’s special territory: creating a world, with meticulous attention to backgrounds and details. With this spy movie jumping from location to location, it gave animators another chance to up their game, and the really deliver—whether rendering a North Sea lair, Venice by day and night, or the resort splendor of Playa del Carmen. And the superhero-style battles with drones is equally accomplished. Spies in Disguise has a great look, great action sequences, characters that are well drawn despite their familiarity, and a script that just clever enough to make this 102-minute film fun.

Is it accomplished enough to get a Best Animated Feature nod? Probably not, because of the fine cinematic line between “homage” and “derivation.” In the early going especially, viewers will have flashbacks to other spy and buddy cop movies because of both the situations and the style of filming. And if you take away the pigeon transformation, the basic plot of a nerdy desk jockey trying to prove himself in the field and a falsely accused “rogue” agent trying to prove his innocence is so familiar that the average adult pretty much knows where this is headed most of the time. That won’t bother people who are just looking to be entertained, because this film does a good job of using those familiar elements to tell a story in Fox Animation style.

As Sterling and Walter set out in hot pursuit of Kappel, the bionic-armed terrorist Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) who framed Sterling, and Valor, Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones), the H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity, and Valor) internal affairs agent, tries to track down and capture Sterling. And that classic double pursuit plot gives this film its structure and tension. Visually and sonically it’s a real treat, with plenty of rear and side speaker effects and a gorgeous Blu-ray presentation.

If this were Disney, directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno would get an earful for using Yakuza bathed in stereotypes instead of a fictional organization of bad guys, but despite the strides they’ve made Fox Animation isn’t Disney . . . yet. Disney acquired Fox films and television in March 2019 and renamed it 21st Century Fox. This project was already in pre-production by then, so it will be the last purely Fox animated film. And if your family is wanting to add another film to the collection immediately but wary of shopping just yet, Best Buy still has curbside pickup and this title is available in many stores.

Entire family: Yes (with parental discretion)
Run time: 102 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link
Best Buy link
Rated PG for action violence and rude humor

Language: 2/10—Some bleeped-out words, an exuberant “hell yeah” and not much else

Sex: 0/10—Oddly, for a spy pic, there isn’t a hint of sexual attraction

Violence: 5/10—Fair amount of cartoon/fantasy violence, including lots of fights, explosions, and a number of implied “terminations”

Adult situations: 2/10—Some drinking

Takeaway: It will be interesting to see how Fox Animation Studios changes under Disney ownership, but if it involves stepping up their game yet another notch, Spies in Disguise shows that they’re up to the task