Spies in Disguise is a unique story with a stellar voice cast, nice animation, all wrapped up in a package that’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it could’ve been so much better if the writers had spread their wings a little farther in one direction and left well enough alone in another.

Super spy Lance Sterling retrieves a new type of weapons drone from a black market arms dealer. On his return from the field he fires Walter, a scientist with some weird ideas who altered one of his gadgets to make it less lethal. When Sterling is later framed for stealing the drone and has the agency he worked for coming after him, he turns to Walter to help him disappear. (I assume everyone has seen the posters and trailers and knows this is done by turning him into a pigeon!)

For the most part this is a fun, light story that can be enjoyed without any demands being made of the viewer. You’ll get a few laughs, but won’t be birdened by having to think too hard or worry about being reduced to tears by some emotional gut punch. And I say all of that as a good thing! Sometimes you just want to enjoy yourself with an interesting-enough story and have some fun. If only more animated movies could achieve that goal, amirite?

Where Spies in Disguise falls short is that they take the motivations for Walter’s character farther than required for the story. He’s a kinda weird guy who makes glitter guns and inflatable hugs. Fun! Perfect! Kids will eat it up and it will even make adults laugh. But, no. Instead Walter has to have a method behind the madness: he believes there are no good guys and no bad guys, and implies that somehow the good guys are actually responsible for the actions of the bad guys if they are too violent. The main villain in the film actually states this as his motive. In a previous mission where he and his men were about to harm lots of innocent civilians, the agency saved the day by killing most of the bad guys. When Sterling tells him “we were protecting people”, the villain actually responds, “but what about my people?” And (for some reason) this hits Sterling hard, as if he really is responsible for the villain’s current actions. If that weren’t ridiculous enough, Walter doesn’t expect he will rid the world of bad guys but will get them to start using his methods too! So, what, a serial killer is going to start using an inflatable hug with his victims I guess? It’s all very naive and without any hint of nuance. Which makes me think this wasn’t meant to be any kind of message movie. I believe the writer’s were just trying to give the film a little more weight than it needed by giving Walter a meatier reason for being kind of weird. Luckily all this will fly right over the heads of the kids in the audience, not because it is complex but because it is a very child-like view of the world. And while adults may roll their eyes at the immaturity of it, since it’s done more clumsily rather than preachy, it’s almost completely ignorable. (More clues that this wasn’t done to make a point.) OK, rant over! Back to the story!

As I mentioned earlier, the basic plot idea is a lot of fun. The idea of a super spy having to learn to operate a a bird is full of comedy potential. And they have definitely mined the idea to good effect. But I wished they had taken it to zanier heights. Soon after Sterling is turned into a pigeon, Walter explains many cool facts about them. For example, they can fly 90 miles per hour, they can see the world in slow motion, and infrared light is not invisible to them. With Chekhov’s gun in mind, I assumed we’d see those abilities coming in handy during the film. Nope. Sill a lot of fun to be had, but humor possibilities were left on the table.

One very minor quibble I almost hate to bring up, but I did find odd and a little distracting: isn’t there already an animated character named Sterling who is the world’s greatest spy?

The animation in Spies in Disguise is pretty good. The sets and locations are all top notch. The bright and colorful palette contributes to the overall fun vibe. The bird characters are all great. And Sterling himself is well done. But I wasn’t a fan of the rest of the character designs. They all felt either overly generic or too cartoon-y.

The score wasn’t memorable at all — mainly because pop songs litter the entire film. There is a lot of good music. But there is just way too much of it. All the song cues were way more than necessary and it actually started getting a little annoying!

The voice cast is filled with stars, but were they really needed? Will Smith is outstanding as a suave sophisticated secret agent. Tom Holland is mostly great as a nerdy research scientist, though occasionally his performance felt a little phoned in. Ben Mendelsohn is perfect as the villainous bad guy (if you believe there are actually bad guys). The rest of the cast featured Rashida Jones, Karen Gillan, Reba McEntire, and DJ Khaled. All were fine in their roles, but the small parts felt very over-cast for stars of their calibre.

Sure a few things about Spies in Disguise ruffled my feathers, but in reality the entire thing together is good enough, especially for kids. If only the filmmakers had just embraced what they had though (a fun and unique story with a great lead actor), it could’ve flown much higher.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Spies in Disguise
Fox, Blue Sky
December 25, 2019
102 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno