What if James Bond were a pigeon? That idea might sound crazy, but it works as the premise for the animated feature, Spies in Disguise.
In their adaptation of Lucas Martell’s short film, Pigeon: Impossible, directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane have crafted a tale that’s a straight-up spy flick with a heart — specifically the message of “hugs, not fists.” Considering the state of the world at the moment, we’d all be well-served to remember this message, especially around the holidays. The film pulls audiences in with a silly premise and then gives them something both action-packed and sweet, anchored by a strong vocal cast.
Because Spies in Disguise is an animated film, there’s a certain expectation of silliness — which the film delivers. You’ve got physical comedy emanating from the transformation of super cool spy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) into a pigeon, such as when he suddenly feels the compulsion to eat food left on the ground. It’s disgusting, but not in a low-hanging fruit, gross-out kind of way. It’s played straight, and Smith’s consistently engaging vocal delivery sells the absurdity.
Then there’s tech genius Walter Bennett (Tom Holland), a brilliant kid whose idealism often gets in the way of engaging with the world. The audience is set up to laugh at the situations Walter finds himself instead of laughing at him, including when he convinces himself he can do parkour by recognizing it’s just a physics problem. That moment is hilarious, as is its outcome, but it’s significant — and refreshing — that neither Walter nor Lance are diminished or humiliated in any way, a filmmaking choice that allows the work to be far more than a goofy comedy.
Spies in Disguise is full of entertaining homages to classic espionage films — and adds to this rich lineage its own thrilling set-pieces. But what sets it apart from its genre peers is its focus on “hugs, not fists.” A spy may use his or her talents to prevent global annihilation, but there’s no reason why spycraft can’t be focused on protection. More pointedly, the film is critical of violence perpetuating a cycle of violence, necessitating stronger good guys to combat bigger bad guys. It also nobly preaches that love, protection and trust are innate while hatred is taught.
While the central trope of opposites-forced-to-work-together is a bit tiresome, the rest of the film feels fresh on the narrative, character development and humor fronts. Still, some nagging questions go unanswered (e.g., how can an agent on the run use his personal spy gear without getting tracked by his former bosses?), but these are minor quibbles compared to the amount of fun you’ll have watching Walter’s various pacifist tools in action.
When it comes to picking a film to watch over the holidays, know that you’re in good hands with agents Sterling and Beckett. Even if the outcome is obvious (it is a kid’s film, after all), there are still a great deal of surprises within that will induce laughter and tug at the heartstrings. Most importantly, it creates an opportunity to discuss the true meaning of the holiday season: love for all and peace for all. For no matter our differences, all we want to do is keep our loved ones safe. Choose hugs, not fists.