If his films are anything to go on, Robert Rodriguez has cajones the size of sombreros, and manhood resembling a large cactus. Here’s a guy who dedicated his body to a science experiment to finance “El Mariachi,” eternally tarnished George Clooney’s Saintly Doctor image by sticking the actor into his serial killer-come-vampire-road-picture, “From Dusk ‘til Dawn,” then resurrected the smart kids flick with Spy Kids. Renegade Rodriguez truly lives for his art, cramming a steel toed boot up the gyrating backside of any genre he decides to pillage.
Now comes “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams,” surfacing as Rodriguez’s best film and the most inventive, spirited children’s movie since “Toy Story.” This sensational celluloid candy store isn’t some sleazeball executive’s cynical vision of what kids want. Rather, it’s as if the director had read the gray matter of every tiny tot on his block, then threw out a red carpet of their most colorful, whimsical hankerings.
Want carnival rides? “Spy Kids 2” kicks off at an edgy amusement park featuring a ride called The Vomiter, which whips its riders around like the classic, multi-armed Octopus attraction before accelerating like a blender on puree cycle. This puke-inducer is matched by other mach ten thrill machines that only a twelve-year-old could conceptualize.
Want dinosaur-like megamonsters? The film resurrects “Jurassic Park”’s misunderstood scientist, this time depicted by the always-reliable Steve Buscemi. To see the one-time Reservoir Dog accidentally father an island of mutated freak-creatures including a pig with wings and a two-headed sea snake is filmgoing bliss of “Willy Wonka” or “Beetlejuice” caliber.
Want fighting? There’s a hilarious father-against-father fistfight for the fate of the planet, with Charlie Chaplin-inspired slapstick in the “Gods Must Be Crazy” mode that’s refreshingly light. There’s no ugly violence to gum up the life-affirming charm of “Spy Kids 2.”
Want kids that actually look like kids? There are no plastic, pristine Britney Spears-inspired tailor’s dummies in this sincere ode to pre-teens. Alexa Vega, the spunky brunette who plays Carmen Cortez, and freckle-faced Daryl Sabara (playing her little brother Juni), are both free of Hollywood gloss. Meanwhile, we’re treated to smile-inducing support from Ricardo Montalban as a shrewd grandfather who delights in one-upping Antonio Banderas’s humiliated spy father.
Want homages to old movies that will entertain film fiend parents while appearing thrilling and new to their film fiend offspring? There’s a swords ‘n skeleton attack with Ray Harryhausen written all over it. Meanwhile, music aficionados will chuckle when cherubic Sabara takes the stage as guitarist Angus Van Santana, and proceeds to impersonate every rock ‘n roll string strangler of note since the invention of Marshall Stacks.
“Spy Kids 2” is the best example in recent memory of what happens when an independent-minded director is allowed to exercise his talents with the backing and support of a Hollywood support system. This movie doesn’t feel like a studio picture, but its ongoing parade of inventive gadgetry and intricately choreographed set pieces swims in the kind of expense that only a studio can finance. Rodriguez knows kids. No doubt kids will be clamoring to get acquainted with “Spy Kids 2”, the best sequel to emerge from a children’s franchise in the past several years.