Like a spazzed-out moppet high on cotton candy, “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” maintains a furious energy level that will delight youngsters even as it tuckers out their pooped parents. Think acid-enhanced lazerium shows. Think fuzzy, black light posters of florescent space ships and mushrooms. Think flamboyant Fourth of July skies awash in fireworks. Robert Rodriguez’s latest is a celebration of the senses that dazzle with each consecutive frame, further enhanced by unprecedented, digital 3-D effects.
Any seven year old who has ever helmed a Game Boy will fall in love with this latest adventure of under-age agents Juni (cherubic Daryl Sabara, his freckled face still free of teenaged acne – for the moment) and Carmen (Alexa Vega, who also sings the film’s title song) Cortez. After the mind of the latter is abducted by a sinister villain known as Toymaker (a refreshingly jovial Sylvester Stallone), Juni ventures, “Matrix”-style, into the circuit-jammed bowels of a 3-D video game called “Game Over.” To rescue his sister, Juni must tackle each consecutive level of the program, with grandfather (Ricardo Montalban), dad (Antonio Banderas), and mom (Carla Gugino) on hand for backup.
As with its two predecessors, “Spy Kids 3D” is chock-full of throwaway images and jaw-dropping sets that reveal Rodriguez’s painstaking attention to detail. In one scene, a character is observed dipping his index digit into a fish bowl full of aquatic inhabitants. But these are no “Finding Nemo”-style friendly fish. They’re man-eating, miniaturized sharks that leap at the finger as it’s lifted out. Meanwhile, all of the neo-Bond sets and gadgets are bathed in rich, Skittles-bright colors, a visual Prozac that delights the eyes.
However, such minor surprises pale in comparison to the awesome spectacle of Rodriguez’s surreal “Game Over” landscapes – a cross between Tim Burton, a high-tech “Tron,” and Pee Wee’s Playhouse (in fact, Alan Cummings returns for his Paul Reubens-esque turn as Floop, a kind of man-child emcee for all three films). Don your 3-D glasses and thrill to images of mischievous pogo-toads with neon-pink tongues that lash out like bullwhips. Marvel to the sight of pre-teen gladiators riding dueling robots that swing and swivel like the loading device helmed by Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens.” Behold, as your mandible dislocates itself and falls off your face during a sensational, high-speed race that upstages “The Road Warrior.” Coins bounce into your lap. A glowing, blue “life pack” hovers toward you. A skywalk of dominoes lays itself out beneath your feet, allowing you to saunter through the clouds. This is state-of-the-art, dazzling stuff that makes Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory look like a lame, turd-encrusted Honey Bucket in comparison.
Unlike the somber pretentiousness that wears down other films with youth appeal (“Phantom Menace,” “The Hulk,” “Matrix Reloaded,” “X-Men II”), “Spy Kids III” feels like something a kid would make, were he or she equipped with the budget and technology. It looks, sounds, and breathes like a grade-school tyke out for a weekend video binge at Game Works. There are no boring, expository sequences; no depressing, grown-up politics. Instead, Rodriguez gifts us with a kaleidoscope of energy and invention.
But there’s more. Amidst the visual spectacle that brands “Spy Kids 3D” is a more profound message. While it’s not hip to champion family values in this day and age, Rodriguez makes it clear that the ties binding elders to their offspring have powerful dramatic pull. As the duo’s wheelchair-bound grandfather, Montalban is pulled into “Game Over” and suddenly retains his ability to walk. In fact, he becomes a senior super-hero, who also shares a bit of history with Toymaker. When was the last time a grandpa was depicted as the heroic heart of a film? Meanwhile, there’s a hysterical scene where Banderas, hot in the midst of a revolutionary scientific experiment, shoves his findings aside (before they shoot into our seats, 3-D style) to rescue his kids. Even Nobel-level science comes a distant second to son and daughter.
Is there a downside to “Spy Kids 3D”? One could nit-pick about the eyestrain that inevitably sets from donning the red and blue glasses, or complain that old franchise favorites from previous films (such as Steve Buschemi as mad-scientist Romero, and Danny Trejo as inventor Machete) get so little screen time.
But that’s persnickety whining. As so many directors abandon a sense of wonder in favor of true-life horrors and “grown up” realities (Steven Spielberg’s shift from “Close Encounters” to “Private Ryan” comes to mind), Robert Rodriguez hasn’t lost touch with life’s playful side. Let’s hope he never does.