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Let's give 'Spy Kids' a big hand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I can't tell whether the addition of a droll and scary underwater scene significantly changes Spy Kids, because I missed the March premiere of the original edition. I can say this: no other PG movie in the year 2001 - and no G, PG-13, or R-rated picture either - has topped this excellent adventure for ebullience and inventive wit.

Remember how once upon a time everyone yearned for the Bond franchise to renew itself with a marriage between 007 and Diana Rigg? Director Robert Rodriguez has devised a Bond movie about family bonds, and it's more fun than any bona fide adult Bond movie since The Spy Who Loved Me. The bonding and the Bondage mesh seamlessly: The movie had me thinking merrily back to old Mad magazine mock-advertising slogans - like "the family that slays together, stays together."

Going in, I knew that Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino are married former secret agents who emerge from retirement to save a colleague and are captured themselves - paving the way for the rescue-team heroics of their own grade-school son and daughter (Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega).

But I wasn't expecting the movie's kaleidoscope of grace notes, such as Banderas' character being named for the Tex-Mex folk hero Gregorio Cortez. Gregorio and Ingrid met when each was ordered to assassinate the other. Instead they fell in love, married, and became consultants to an organization called, like the World War II forerunner to the CIA, the OSS. In one stroke, Rodriguez evokes the post-Cold War garbling of loyalties and the pre-Cold War notion of varied nationalities banding together for a good cause.

But let's not get too heavy, especially since Rodriguez doesn't. What's important is that Banderas and Gugino and Sabara and Vega meld happily as a household unit; the escapades that begin almost immediately use their clannish sympatico as a touchstone.

Gregorio and Ingrid romp through their relationship - their warm smiles match up as well as their sleek secret-agent bodies - and though they bemoan lying to their children about their past, you wonder whether their undercurrent of serious mischief has kept the household bubbling.

Rodriguez sets up everything in the plot, and does it so offhandedly you're not aware of the preparation: you're more cued into the way Carmen and Juni share a lovingly goading older sister-kid brother relationship. The affinity of this quartet is complete.

So when the charming, skillful Teri Hatcher pops into the picture as an enigmatic agent (and what a pleasure to see her outside those annoying Radio Shack TV commercials), her tinge of condescension to the kids sets off just the right amount of distrust.

The movie is about collegiality and kinship; even if you don't recognize the friends of Rodriguez that show up in bit parts, like Mike (King of the Hill) Judge and Richard (Before Sunrise) Linklater, the movie has a friendly feel to it, abetted by assured supporting turns from Cheech Marin, as the kids' fake uncle, and Danny Trejo, as their real one.

The man you take as the obligatory Bond-flick fey bad guy isn't in essence a villain but a misguided showman and fantasist named Floop. He's the host of a kids' TV-show with a variety of characters called Fooglies: they look like humanoid Gumbies gone woefully awry. They are actually OSS agents transformed into gooey gargoyles. Alan Cumming interprets Floop as a Pee-Wee with a Playhouse that's a snake pit. When he sings the wonderfully spooky theme song that Danny Elfman wrote for him (it's in the vein of Elfman's score for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas), he entices children with the idea that they can escape the harshness of the world only if they dream his dreams.

Until Floop learns that it's best to play with others - for example, to include kids in a kids' show - he wants to enlist everyone in his own personal fantasyland. The spy kids of the title aren't Carmen and Juni: they're a legion of robo-kids with eyes that smolder like those of the children from Village of the Damned.

What's elating about Spy Kids is that Rodriguez doesn't work with Floop's kind of insistence and clamor: for a special effects-laden extravaganza, this movie is remarkably airy as well as eerie. In addition to directing the picture, Rodriguez gets credit for writing it and producing it and editing it and operating the camera and supervising the effects and helping score the music and re-record the sound. Yet what comes out doesn't seem an act of megalomania but a gift of imagination - a benign equivalent of the clay Floop manipulates in his fist and turns into grotesque new heads for his enemies.

Floop's throne is a hand with a head where the tip of each finger should be, and his legion of mechanical shock troops are literally all thumbs, called Thumb Thumbs. Floop takes the concept of the hand-made and perverts it.

Rodriguez, with a toy chest full of gizmos - jetpacks, guppy ships and electro-shock gumballs - takes the concept of the hand-made and resurrects it for the computer age. He puts the digits back in digital.

Spy Kids - Special Edition

Starring Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Daryl Sabara, Alexa Vega

Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Rated PG

Released by Dimension

Running time 91 minutes

Sun score ***1/2

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