Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Waited for DVD: Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World (2011) - a darker, more pessimistic family adventure that reflects a director's broken home.

Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World
89 minutes
rated PG

by Scott Mendelson

In a world where even G-rated cartoons seem aimed at somewhat adult sensibilities, the Spy Kids franchise was and is arguably the last of its kind: a full-blown franchise for kids and pitched directly to a younger audience.  All three prior films suffer from a bit too much kid-centric dialogue and on-the-nose moralizing, but they all also have a certain quirky and visually dynamic charm.  Spy Kids was a blast of fresh air in early 2001, coming ironically just before Shrek would change the landscape of kid-friendly entertainment for good.  It was endlessly colorful and inventive with an all-star cast (Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alan Cummings, Tony Shalhoub, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo in perhaps his first-ever good guy role) to support the title characters (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara).  The second film, Spy Kids 2: Island of the Lost Dreams, was arguably inferior, but it contain its share of entertainment value, as well as a dynamite action sequence to close out the first act.  The third picture, Spy Kids 3: Game Over, was the last red/blue 3D picture, as well as the last big-screen 3D film in around 15 years.  It was pretty much a glorified video game, but it contained a stellar race sequence that put the Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace pod-race to shame, as well as a heartbreaking finale monologue from Ricardo Montalban.  Now, eight years after the previous installment and ten years since the series began, we have Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World.  It's not a good film, but it does have surprising potency if you view it through the lens of a Robert Rodriguez who is no longer the quintessential family man, both as a filmmaker and as a husband/father.

The first three films, made in 2001, 2002, and 2003, had a certain traditional and simple look at family.  In short, families were ironclad, to be there for each other through thick and thin, and contained bonds that were unbreakable. But as most of us know, Robert Rodriguez's family suffered a dissolution of sorts in the intervening years.  Following a heated affair with actress Rose McGowan in 2006 on the set of Planet Terror, Rodriguez separated form his wife of sixteen years in 2008.  Without going into gossipy details, it is clear that this latest Spy Kids installment represents a new reality for the director, one that acknowledges that not every family stays together and not every ending is a happy one.  The primary arc of this film concerns Jessica Alba's very pregnant spy, on her last assignment before giving birth to her first child with her new husband (Joel McHale).  McHale doesn't know what his wife does for a living, and in fact is trying to sell a pilot for a reality show entitled Spy Hunters.  But the primary problem is Alba's relationship with her stepchildren, who are reluctant to let her into their lives following the death of their mother.  When a new villain strikes with a weapon that can literally make time speed up, Alba must go back into action, and her two step kids (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) eventually discover their new stepmom's secret life and become embroiled in the adventure.

The film pretty much follows the Spy Kids template, with the kids discovering various wacky gadgets and gizmos while learning a valuable lesson about the nature of family.  Where the film differs itself from its predecessors, apart from slightly more violent fisticuffs, is in its portrayal of the villain.  While I wouldn't dream of revealing the identity of The Time Keeper (although IMDB does), I will say that he/she's motivation is surprisingly tragic, and said villain's monologue-ing resembles something out a Saw film.  Like John Kramer, Timekeeper is punishing humanity for taking the gift of life for granted, in this case specifically not being grateful for the time they have with their loved ones.  While the film has a happy ending, and the Timekeeper does receive the token redemption that all Spy Kids villains obtain, the picture doesn't sugarcoat the harshness of either losing a parent or being unable to change the past to fix a life-altering mistake.

Again, the film is more interesting to ponder than it is entertaining to watch.  It menders when it should be racing along, the McHale subplot is a waste of space, and the title kids don't quite measure up to the charisma of Vega and Sabara.  But there is an undercurrent of sadness that is striking for this famously bouncy and upbeat franchise.  Other than young Blanchard's arc involving learning to trust and accept her stepmother as part of her family ("If she takes the time to love you", Jeremy Piven advises Blanchard regarding her stepmom,  "you love her back."), the primary lessons are those learned by the adult villain.  What stands out about the picture is that it's a Spy Kids film where the audience members being 'preached' at are not the kids, but rather their parents, if not specifically Robert Rodriguez pointing the camera right back at himself.

Grade: C+

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