When you think about it, “how do you fit a spy story into an all-ages movie?” is almost as tough of a problem as turning a human being into a pigeon. The average spy tale is bound to involve deceit and death, the darker ones torture and betrayal, but they all run on the same central core element of violence — or do they? That question is actually the driving force behind Spies In Disguise, whose two main characters spend the entire movie debating whether violence is an appropriate response to adversaries.
No one could deny the impressive weirdness of Spies In Disguise’s premise. Based on the animated short Pigeon: Impossible by Lucas Martell, Spies In Disguise is the story of Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a brilliant young boy whose prodigious gift for scientific invention rivals that of Lex Luthor. Walter, though, doesn’t seem to have a malicious bone in his body. His talents eventually get him hired by the U.S. government, but he declines to build high-tech grenades or other machines of death. When tasked with equipping top spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith), Walter instead gives him a grenade that shoots glitter — because glitter “makes people happy.” This glitter grenade actually works out fine for Lance in the field, distracting a horde of Yakuza gangsters long enough for him to escape, but he’s still enraged at Walter anyway. Although Lance is extremely popular with his colleagues, his experiences have definitely hardened him. These days, he flies solo and fights fire with fire…that is, until Walter’s latest invention turns him into a pigeon.
There’s a nobility at the core of the pigeon experiment. In Walter’s view, it will allow a spy to go undercover so perfectly that they’ll be able to uncover important information without harming anyone or being harmed in return. It totally removes violence (like the kind that killed his policewoman mother) from the equation of saving the world. It happens to be perfectly timed for Lance, who finds himself a refugee from the government after a shapeshifting villain steals a priceless assassination drone while wearing his face. Lance and Walter must work together to clear his name and save their fellow spies from the villain’s evil plans, all while dodging the relentless internal affairs team led by Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones). Much body horror comedy is made of Lance’s pigeon body; the initial transformation is horrifically drawn out, and the later growing pains are unique and hilarious.
Around its strange core idea, Spies In Disguise borrows liberally from the superhero zeitgeist. Holland’s performance isn’t the only thing Spies In Disguise shares with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lance’s early battle against the yakuza takes place in a gambling den nearly identical to the one raided by the Wakandan superheroes of Black Panther, his escape from spy headquarters strongly resembles Captain America’s split from S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, and Ben Mendelsohn plays a shapeshifter with a grudge. At least with this villain, you don’t have to worry about any of the spicy geopolitics that typically accompanies the spy genre; with his laser-red eye and robotic claw hand, it’s impossible to mistake Killian for any real-world figures. His villainy is rather on-the-nose, right down to the fantastically imposing stormy rocking outcropping he chooses as a lair. But Spies In Disguise directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno have an eye for interesting angles: Even as Killian kills an underling in the traditional villainous style, it’s seen through the broken lenses of the man’s shattered glasses on the ground.
More importantly, Killian has something to contribute to the debate about violence. Lance’s aggressive posture is inspired by losing people close to him, but his resultant violence has in turn scarred Killian. Can the vicious cycle ever be broken? The answer is determined in a climactic fight that literally pits Walter’s fun, good-natured inventions against killing machines in an action showcase that puts the directors’ aforementioned sharp eye to weaving and winding through a massively entertaining battle royale between all sides.
Set for a Christmas Day release, Spies In Disguise is up against heavy competition this holiday season, from Star Wars to Little Women. But it’s a proud piece of family entertainment with a good heart, an eye for inventive action, and a delightfully wacky sense of humor. B