starring Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara
written and directed by Robert Rodriguez
by Walter Chaw Owing to Robert Rodriguez's infectious goodwill and delirious visual sensibility, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams is the kind of children's movie that respects a child's imagination along with parental patience. Packed with invention from its opening theme park to its closing Island of Dr. Moreau, the picture is a three-pepper salsa that, for all its flashing gizmos and stop-motion monsters, suggests that the best gadget is a rubber band, and that the most important quest is one undertaken on behalf of a family member.
While not nearly so carefully-constructed as the first film, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams made me feel taken care of in the cosily nostalgic way of Saturday afternoon creature-features on local television, where you could count on seeing an old Godzilla or a classic Harryhausen. Neither is the connection lost on multi-hyphenate wunderkind Rodriguez, who has his child hero Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) discover with tossed-off awe that one of his childhood sketches has come to life on the titular island. The entire film is an exercise in recapturing a feeling of wonder and danger in the moviegoing experience, providing kids with something a little meatier than the plaintive milquetoast complaint of Stuart Little 2, the paternalistic racism of Spirit, and the astonishingly grating experience of The Master of Disguise.
Juni and his sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are pint-sized spies in their parents', Gregorio's and Ingrid's (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino), spy organization, the OSS. Elevated since the first film from interlopers to ranked agents (Class 2 means you can boss around The President!), Juni and Carmen embark to the Island of Lost Dreams in pursuit of a gizmo that has the potential to shut down the world's electronic devices. Inhabited by Xanth-like creatures (a horsefly being a horse with a fly's head, a spider monkey being a monkey with a spider's abdomen and legs, and a spork being a flying pig), the island's beasties are the brainchild of a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi) who doesn't understand that his creations just want to spend a little time with dad.
In the least preachy terms possible, Spy Kids 2 pushes a message of family unity--adding to Buscemi's Frankenstein subplot is another involving Gregorio's invasive in-laws, played with perverse glee by Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban. A scene where an unconventional dance shared by Juni and his new ladylove, The President's daughter Alexandra (Taylor Momsen), explodes into the coolest kid uprising since Village of the Damned, and the entire second half of the film runs like a highlight reel for classics like Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, and of course both of animation legend Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad films. A second pair of spy kids, arrogant Gary (Matthew O'Leary) and Gerti (Emily Osment) Giggles, have their familial allegiance tested by their rogue agent father Donnagan (Mike Judge--yes, that Mike Judge), serving as a smart parallel to the Cortez family's bliss.
Where the film fails is not its energy or subtext, but in that certain lack of freshness endemic to sequels. It's tempting to mark moments in the Spy Kids 2 that are just sequel magnifications (the second set of spy kids, the increase in visual gewgaws), but Rodriguez deserves the benefit of a doubt--best to expand this innovative little franchise into an epic that should be taken as a whole once the third instalment is complete. Whatever the case, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, for all of its positives, is a picture that almost undeniably gains a great measure of esteem and indulgence for the depressed climate of movies for children nowadays. After watching Jean Cocteau's magnificent Beauty and the Beast (1946) this weekend, I began to wonder just how much my discretion has been compromised by a steady diet of terrible movies. All the same, Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams is agreeably substantive and charmingly resourceful, a pleasant diversion for late summer that won't actually make your children gaffed and appreciably stupider. Originally published: August 7, 2002.