Kids' films are tricky. The best of them – well, to be honest, anything made by Pixar – are more family films than movies just for kids, and tend to be loved by critics and audiences alike. But films aimed mainly at children, such as Rodriguez's Spy Kids series, tend to be dismissed by the majority of critics, most of whom have lost their inner child (hi, Doug!). But you'll probably have to dig pretty deep to find that inner child while watching Spy Kids 4.
I'm a huge fan of Rodriguez – have been ever since he burst onto the scene with El Mariachi – but I think that with the fourth film in this series he may have gone back to this well just once too often. That's not to say it's a bad film; this Spy Kids is up to the standard of the first three in many ways. What lets it down are the two new leads, who are both a little wooden in the acting department. Yes, the worst things here are the new kids on the block.
He had to get some new kids, of course. Carmen and Juni, the original Spy Kids, are all grown up, so rather than rename them Spy Teens, Rob's decided to bring in some fresh blood. So meet Rebecca and Cecil (Blanchard and Cook), the stepkids of retired agent Marissa Wilson (Alba). She's married to their dad Wilbur (McHale), and nobody is even slightly aware of her former life as a spy for the OSS. But when the villianous Timekeeper starts messing with time, and threatening to bring about a quick end to the world, she's called back into action ... and her new family gets caught up as well.
Whether it's bloody action, full-on horror or slapstick films for kids, Rodriguez always knows his audience. But with Spy Kids 4, it feels like, while he hasn't quite dropped the ball, he has fumbled it a little. He's foregone most of the gadgets of the first three films and replaced them with a robot dog, voiced here by Gervais. But after a while, his fart-and-poo-gag schtick tends to grate. Among the rest of the adult cast, McHale is passable and Piven plays a kinder, gentler version of Ari Gold from Entourage. For adult, heterosexual men in the audience, Alba is a real drawcard – especially when she dons the leather catsuit. And for fans of the first three films, yes, the now-grown-up original spy kids do put in an appearance.
But the biggest gimmick this time round, alongside the passable 3D, is the Aroma-Scope. Yes, the scratch-and-sniff movie that was pioneered by John Waters in 1981 with Polyester is revived, to fairly dull effect. How does it work? Audiences get scratch-and-sniff cards featuring circles numbered 1 to 8. When a number appears on screen, they rub that circle on the card, which give off a smell matching an odour on the screen. Well, supposedly. At the press screening I attended, we all found that all the odours smelled alike; and all of them were sweet. So no, can't really see that catching on (it didn't catch on back in the 70s, either).
So all in all, the new Spy Kids is a perfectly passable kids film – kids will like it well enough (there are enough poo and fart jokes, plus lots of action and flashy special effects) and adults will probably find enough to keep them amused for its 90-minute runtime. But message to Rob: I think it's probably time to retire these secret agents, don't you?