One of the pleasures of regular moviegoing is being dragged to a picture you thought you couldn't care less about, only to find yourself enjoying it almost against your will. "Spy Kids," written and directed by Robert Rodriguez (whose last movie was the hugely entertaining but largely overlooked teen horror picture "The Faculty"), is one of those gentle surprises, a kids' picture made with enough thought and care to keep adults entertained too.
Rodriguez's strong suit here isn't just that he remembers what it's like to be a kid (although the movie's crackerjack gadgets and silly jokes prove that beyond a doubt). It's more that he's hip to what it's like to be an adult in a kids' world -- in other words, he knows parents are people too: individuals who have willingly given up adventure and romance to raise good kids, but who can't help feeling occasional pangs of regret for the old days. "Spy Kids" is partly an adventure in which children get to be the adults; freed from parental restrictions, they get the chance to go off and save the day with their own ingenuity and smarts. But beyond that, it's also a story about parents' finding their own independence in the context of raising their kids. The movie's message -- that families are stronger when they allow for both parents' and kids' independence and breathing room -- is refreshingly subtle and sophisticated, without ever dragging down the movie's unabashed entertainment value.
Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, who both bring a light touch and a mischievous wink to their roles) are international superspies who have retired to a gorgeously comfortable-looking Spanish villa to raise their kids, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, who play sharp-witted siblings without a scrap of that dreadful quality usually called "spunkiness"). Unbeknownst to Ingrid, Gregorio has been lured out of retirement on an important mission; as much as she loves her kids, when she sees Gregorio getting his spy gear together, she begs to go along, confessing that she's been anxious for an adventure.
So Gregorio and Ingrid trade their suburban parent duds for dashing black leather (Gregorio, especially, takes great delight in reapplying the fake, pencil mustache he used to wear in the days before the most exciting part of his day was driving the kids to school.) They set off, entrusting the kids to the care of Uncle Felix (everyone's favorite authority figure, Cheech Marin, whose mere presence is one of the movie's funniest in-jokes).
Before long, a twist of circumstances sends Carmen and Juni out on their own; they're forced to escape to sea in a superdeluxe kid-size submarine. When they learn their parents are in danger, they head out to the castle of the nefarious kids' TV personality Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming, looking like a glam dandy in a succession of swirly-patterned velvet frock coats) and his mild-mannered assistant Minion (Tony Shalhoub, maniacally hilarious in a pair of Coke-bottle glasses that make his eyes look like giant fish trapped in tiny bowls). Floop has a plan to send an army of superstrong robot children out into the world, if only he can unlock the secret of giving them brains, and it's up to Carmen and Juni to stop him.
The action in "Spy Kids" isn't annoyingly aggressive or manic. Unlike a lot of kid movies, it doesn't whirl viewers around a spin cycle just to entertain them. Instead, Rodriguez relies on groovy gadgets and silly kid-jokes to keep the story moving. He's devised "Spy Kids" as a James Bond movie for kids, and the approach works beautifully. He understands that in the movies, mechanical gewgaws are the things that enable kids to do all the things that their age, their size and especially their overcautious parents prevent them from doing. Juni and Carmen have special jetpacks that fly them out of a tight squeak; they get hold of some super-duper jawbreakers that double as mini cannonballs, capable of vanquishing even the most treacherous villains.
And he gets kid humor perfectly. Juni and Carmen's minisubmarine is furnished with everything they need, including microwaveable popcorn snacks and small toilet seats that fold up into the wall. (When you're a kid, don't you wonder how people in submarines and spaceships go to the bathroom? And it's a question that's never answered.) As the toilet flushes, a soothing mechanized voice announces authoritatively, from nowhere, "Now flushing your poop." It's the kind of ridiculous touch that makes kids giggle, and Rodriguez tosses it off so unself-consciously that it doesn't come off as crass.
"Spy Kids" is peopled with all kinds of fantastical creatures: The kid robots are creepy, with glowing eyes and a homogenized "Village of the Damned" demeanor. Among the other inhabitants of Floop's castle (which itself evokes a psychedelic Gaudí church) are mutant beings known as Fooglies, grotesque clowns that look as if they could have been lifted out of "Zippy the Pinhead," with their stretched-and-smooshed features and muddled brains. Weirdest of all are the Thumb-Thumbs, an army of servants who are literally all thumbs -- they have thumbnails where their faces should be, and they bump and bumble their way through their tasks like meatheaded, muscle-bound bodybuilders.
Rodriguez peppers "Spy Kids" with grown-up jokes, too: Gregorio's code name is "Hombre," a moniker that jibes with his manly superspy swagger and bedroom mustache. And his and Ingrid's boss, who shows up in a cameo late in the movie, is played by a famous movie star who probably means much more to adults than he does to kids. (I won't spoil the surprise by naming names.)
The plot of "Spy Kids" doesn't hang together flawlessly, as you'd want an adult thriller to. But who cares? Rodriguez has made a movie that doesn't talk down to kids or grown-ups. That's more than you can say for plenty of contemporary movies aimed at an adult audience, soupy romances or clomping action pictures with nary a gadget in sight. Not every movie needs, or should have, a talking toilet. But isn't it something to find a director who knows just how to use one?