I’m not always on board with what Robert Rodriguez is selling, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, his particular brand of of B-movie absurdity can be quite endearing. I think it might be a question of earnestness. he same intentional throwback-camp aesthetic that can be somewhat tiresome in titles like Planet Terror & Machete Kills work perfectly fine in more original-leaning material like The Faculty. In some ways, then, children’s media might be the perfect arena for Rodriguez’s schtick, since it requires a certain lack of ironic detachment. His first foray into the genre, 2003’s Spy Kids, is a case-in-point example of Rodriguez’s live-action cartoon hijinks & intentional genre send-ups working best without this usual hard-wink irony gumming up the magic. In a lot of ways Spy Kids plays like a feature-length cereal commercial (complete with ad placement for fictional cereal) that takes more than a few dark turns every time it can get away with it. For a quick glimpse into what I’m getting at here, check out htis clip of Alan Cumming singing the barnburner “Floop’s Dream” in one of the film’s more sublime moments. What the what?
In the film, the aforementioned Floop (played by Cumming) attracts the attention of international superspies/sexy parents through the children’s show/criminal operation Floop’s Fooglies. Floop’s evil deeds mostly revolve around genetic manipulation that turns former spies into horrific clown monsters he dubs “fooglies” & similarly ineffective world domination plots & extreme wealth eccentricity. When he abducts the parent-spies & threatens to turn them into fooglies, it’s up to their oblivious children to take up the family business & spring into action. The movie has a great deal of fun pulling humor from the spy industry’s goofier gadgetry (like an underwater SUV or an unwieldy jetpack), but for my money almost all of its best features revolve around Floops’s horror show of a lair. A virtual reality room that’s equal part’s Dodo’s Wackyland, Star Trek‘s holodeck, and the nightmare sequences of Ken Russell’s Altered States gives the movie a nice, surreal touch. Then there’s strange details like the “thumb thumbs” (humanoid flunkies made entirely of thumbs) and the fact that the Floop’s Fooglies theme song, when played backwards, is “Floop is a madman! Help us! Save us!”. And if you have any question of just how weird this movie gets, I’d like to direct you again to the “Floop’s Dream” clip. Go ahead. Watch it a second time. I’ve been practically running it on loop.
What I like most about Spy Kids is how the Floop’s Fooglies horror show is thoroughly mixed with its regular kids’ movie fare, as if it weren’t a nightmare vision of a saccharine hellscape. Regular old kids’ movie standards like poop jokes, McDonald’s ad placement, and goofy one-liners like “My parents can’t be spies! They’re not cool enough!” fit in very inconspicuously with the Floop-flavored terror as if the latter weren’t going to wake the pint-sized target audience screaming in the middle of the night. It’s an absurd, endearing combo that makes for much more challenging children’s feature that what you’d typical expect from a movie with such heavy reliance on CGI & fake-looking, sanitized sets. I really should not have waited to watch Spy Kids as long as I did. Not only does it stand as an example of Rodriguez at his finest, but it also gave the world the gift of “Floop’s Dream”, a clip I’m just going to leave right here just in case you haven’t watched it yet. It’s a beautiful thing.
Bonus Points: Besides the Floop insanity, I think Spy Kids is noteworthy for being a high profile film that not only gathering Latino greats Antonio Banderas, Danny Trejo, and Cheech Marin all in one feature, but also for writing in two Latino children as its leads (even if one of the actors they cast’s heritage wasn’t quite in line with that detail in reality). That’s a rare treat indeed. There’s also a great deal of implication that the “Machete” character Danny Trejo plays in the film is the very same Machete he plays in Rodriguez’s Machete franchise. That feature is no “Floop’s Dream”, but it’s a fun little tidbit to chew on, if nothing else.