In the high octane world of secret agents, there is no better spy than Lance Sterling (Will Smith). He’s one of the agency’s top agents, able to take down the world’s toughest bad guys and still retain his good looks. He’s one to believe that every problem can be solved by with violence, that the only way to protect the world is to hurt the bad guys harder than they hurt us. That’s what has gotten him this far.
But deep within the cubicles of the agency’s tech department, there’s one who thinks otherwise. Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) is a teenage prodigy who’s only interested in developing weapons that bring people together, not take them down. He believes that the world problems can only be solved if we calm down and try to understand each other. This opinion doesn’t make him very popular amongst his co-workers, especially Sterling.
However, when Lance’s latest mission ends up failing, he is labeled the prime suspect in the theft of a secret, extremely dangerous government weapon. He has no choice but to turn to Walter, who has been developing something he calls “biodynamic concealment.” He promises that it will make him completely invisible to his enemies; something that Sterling takes a little too seriously when it instead turns him into a pigeon.
Trapped in the body of an animal, with no way to use his greatest assets as a spy, Lance is forced to rely on Walter’s help. Walter is convinced that being a pigeon is the best way to be a spy, as pigeons inhabit most areas of the world and no one notices or cares about their presence. As the two are chased by government agents, they must work past their differences to stop the real thief, a cybernetic terrorist named Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) from taking over the free world.
Blue Sky Studios, the studio behind this film, has had a successful (if slightly rough) career leading up to this. They’ve produced some of the best in modern animation, such as the original Ice Age, 2011’s Rio, and 2015’s The Peanuts Movie; while also producing some less than stellar films like 2017’s Ferdinand. Point being is that they aren’t as consistent in turning out well-rounded family movies as studios like Pixar or Dreamworks. Some of their films work, and others don’t. It’s kind of a 50/50 gamble.
And with Spies in Disguise, it seems they may have hit another win. It’s nowhere near the highs of their better films, but this one is mostly saved by some exceptional voice acting (particularly Smith and Holland), gorgeous animation, decent humor, and heartwarming messages about solving problems without violence. This film is more aimed at kids, but if you’re a parent forced to take said kids to this, there’s something there for you too.
It mostly gets thanks to the work of Will Smith and Tom Holland. What seemed like an odd choice in casting at first turned out to be a really great pairing. The two really embody the characters of Lance and Walter, and the two have great chemistry together. They feel like they are actually friends, and you want to root for them when they get into a life-threatening situation.
It also manages to get by on the level of humor, which surprisingly doesn’t sink to the level of most kid films. Many animated films go straight for the gross-out humor that kids love, yet has become more detailed to most of our dismay. In this film, aside from a few gross gags about pigeon behavior and anatomy, it mostly stays in a more sophisticated side that will appeal more to adults, but also for kids.
But what this movie does better than most others of its kind is that it actually has stakes. Movies like Captain Marvel and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker attempt to make you think the characters have lost something important or one of them has died, but then immediately reveals that everything is okay. This diminishes the tension and makes the film much less dramatically involving, since we know there’s nothing that can stop the characters.
In this film, whenever something bad happens to Lance or Walter, we are led to believe that they’ve lost, that they have been defeated and nothing can save them. This feeling makes us care for the two so much more than the aforementioned films. It elevates the film with tension that pays off when the characters pick themselves back up and reenter the fight more confident than before.
Spies in Disguise may be far from the standards set by modern animated films, but thanks to its exceptional cast and surplus of genuine stakes and tension, it serves as a good time for kids and even some parents for the holiday season. It doesn’t push any boundaries, but something like this doesn’t really need to. It just needs to be a good time. If Blue Sky wants to turn this into a franchise, as long as they keep Smith and Holland, it’s a world that’s worth revisiting in future installments.