Under-age and under cover

The one thing feuding siblings, 12-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and 8-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara), agree on is that their parents aren’t cool enough to be spies. Yet that’s exactly what they are.

Experts at disguise, apolitical yet loyal, adept with all forms of gadgetry, Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and Gregorio Cortez (Antonio Banderas) are semiretired espionage agents working the deepest cover of their careers as a suburban mom and dad — until they’re captured by an evil genius and need to be rescued by their resourceful, brave children.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, one that Spy Kids mastermind Robert Rodriguez (writer, director, editor, producer and all-around creative dynamo) uses as a jumping-off point to examine his own brand of family values. The family that works as a unit — where each individual contributes their own talent — is the one that thrives, asserts Rodriguez in this clever, high-speed romp through a fantasyland jam-packed with enough exciting people, places and things to tickle the most jaded imagination.

Take the flamboyant Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), who’s not only a master criminal but the host of his own surreal children’s television show. This split personality reflects the dual nature of Spy Kids, which functions as both an adventure story and a reminder to adults of the creativity and capability of children. Floop would rather capture the minds of kids than lead an army of lethal robot-youngsters, a task he leaves in the slippery hands of his sniveling sidekick, the appropriately named Minion (Tony Shalhoub).

This twist is just one way Rodriguez subverts expectations. Within his relatively straightforward story line are spikes of mischievous anarchy, the kind of boisterous, restless energy too often missing in films for children, which mistakenly package potty humor and frenetic action as family entertainment. The buoyant feeling of Spy Kids is genuine, the organic outpouring of a creative mind unwilling to be capped by convention.

See this week's Reckless Eyeballing for an exclusive interview with Spy Kids director Rober Rodriguez.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].

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