To all appearances, the animated comedy Spies in Disguise is just another rollicking send-up of super spy thrillers. As befits a movie about clandestine activity, however, there’s more than meets the eye here. Hidden beneath its parodistic action-comedy exterior is a message, one that doesn’t set out to merely lampoon the genre but to playfully question almost everything about it.
“When we fight fire with fire, we all get burned,” says Walter Beckett (voiced by the endearing Tom Holland). Walter is a neurotic gadgets expert tasked with outfitting Lance Sterling (a suave Will Smith), the star operative for a U.S. government spy agency known, aptly enough, as the Agency. Within its Washington, D.C., headquarters, Walter alienates the other members of his tech team by working on contraptions that could only be called ... pacifist. Think adorably distracting glitter bombs, a lavender-scented truth serum, and a very serious take on silly string.
First-time directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno clearly know their James Bond tropes. Lance sports a tricked-out luxury car, quippy persona, and comically chiseled jaw line. For a world-class spy, however, Bond always has been extraordinarily bad at going unnoticed, and the same could be said for Lance. When Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a villain with a robotic arm and a grudge, frames Lance for treason, the Agency puts a no-nonsense internal affairs agent (Rashida Jones) on the spy’s trail.
Lance looks for help from Walter, who has an appropriately insane solution: a serum that transforms our hero into that most inconspicuous of creatures — a pigeon. Lance, who hastily downs the concoction without knowing its purpose, isn’t particularly pleased with his new appearance, and the film revels in the absurdity of this human-to-avian body swap. Spies in Disguise then turns into a buddy movie as Walter and his now-feathered friend elude capture and thwart Killian’s evil plan.
The humor includes enough slapstick and gross-out gags to keep the kids entertained, but there are clever callbacks and meta-jokes for older audiences to chuckle at as well. Screenwriters Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, who loosely adapted Spies in Disguise from the 2009 short film Pigeon: Impossible, anchor the story around the refreshingly subversive theme of nonviolence, as the movie finds increasingly inventive ways to visualize Walter’s whimsical approach to spycraft.
Before launching its globetrotting adventure, Spies in Disguise finds grounding in a sweetly sentimental prologue in which a young Walter is shown tinkering with devices designed to protect his police officer mother (Rachel Brosnahan). Walter knows his ideas are peculiar, but his mom emphasizes the value of thinking outside the box. “What’s wrong with weird?” she asks. “The world needs weird.”
Spies in Disguise is also kind of a weird, and that’s why it works. Here’s hoping more movies take that intel to heart.