If I were to list my favorite kids’ films of all time, the first two installments of Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids would be on there, no question. They’re smart—never pandering or talking down to the children they’re made for—and fun. It’s the kind of top-notch filmmaking you rarely find in family entertainment. Because of this high standard of quality, I’ve cut Rodriguez’s fourth film in the series, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, a bit of slack.
This is a film with issues, but it still manages to fare better than Rodriguez’s last couple attempts at family entertainment. Like the last Rodriguez kid flick, Shorts (2009), there’s a definite feeling of cutting corners. It’s almost as if the money’s just not there, or Rodriguez—hearkening back to his guerrilla-filmmaking days—simply doesn’t find big-budget production values necessary. There’s a cheap feel to chunks of the film, and a shoddiness in the special effects that can be distracting at times. The novelty value of the original Spy Kids is gone, and the charm of the second film’s production design—mostly by the way of the faux-Harryhausen creatures that populated the film—is also missing.
This doesn’t keep the film from getting a lot of things right, however. Since this is a Spy Kids film, it’s a movie that’s ultimately about family. In this case, we get Jessica Alba as Marissa, who is trying to win over her hard-sell stepkids Rebecca and Cecil (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook). But Marissa leads a double life as top-secret spy tasked with stopping a masked villain called The Timekeeper, who is out to end the world by stopping time.
The film follows the basic outline of the original Spy Kids, as Rebecca and Cecil become Spy Kids and, of course, save the day. As a little adventure flick, this works fine. It also carries the usual energy of a Rodriguez picture—being fast moving and filled with clever bits of filmmaking. This fourth installment is ultimately about making the most of the time one has with their family. This isn’t exactly the most original concept ever committed to celluloid, especially in a cinematic world already peopled by workaholic parents, but Rodriguez’s handling of the concept is surprisingly fresh. By the time we get to our villain’s reason for his crimes—which turn out to be more than understandable, and fit right in with this theme—the film becomes somewhat touching and heartfelt.
This doesn’t mean the film is a downer, either. The focus remains on the ‘tween action and adventure. And while it all doesn’t quite work—there is an excess of gross-out gags, for instance, something the Spy Kids series has always stayed away from in the past—it’s still a pretty neat movie. We also get an added gimmick in “Aromascope”—scratch-and-sniff cards given out with the tickets—which is an novel idea, even though it’s never used in an effective manner. (Spoiler alert: The entire movie smells like cherries and cardboard.)
With its wealth of human touches, this latest Spy Kids is a worthy successor to the first two installments. (Let’s just ignore Spy Kids 3D). There’s also enough fan service—including a good turn by original Spy Kids Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara—to be enjoyable for those who consider themselves fans of the series. Is it a great movie? No. But it’s certainly better—and more fun—than that Smurfs abomination. Rated PG for mild action and rude humor.