Preteen superspies Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) return for more family-friendly high jinks in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, the follow-up to last year's boffo Spy Kids. After a daring rescue of the president's daughter (Taylor Momsen) at an amusement park and a brush with glib rivals Gary and Gertie Giggles (Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment ' yes, the sister of Haley Joel, and the resemblance is terrifying), the Cortez sibs set off in search of the Transmooker, a mysterious cloaking device (or something) coveted by dastardly spy chief Donnagon (Mike Judge). But will their journey strand them on the titular island, where mysterious creatures (including Steve Buscemi) await? And what will happen when their mom and dad (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) find out?
Like its predecessor, this all-ages romp stands head and shoulders above the usual family fare. It's lively and fun, its youthful leads are engaging and authentic, and there's not a single fart joke that I can recall. (Though there's a poop gag and a pun about shiitake mushrooms.) Director Robert Rodriguez knows how to bring out the best in his actors, eliciting smoldering, self-mocking machismo from Banderas (who's clearly having a great time) and purse-lipped maternalism from Gugino. ("There is no hacking in this household!" she scolds). The natural physicality of his actors plays beautifully, as in a biff! pow! fight sequence between Banderas and Judge, both of whom seem delighted to play such broad, old-fashioned physical comedy. Sabara dances ballet quite proficiently in an early scene, and the action choreography is consistently light-hearted and ingenious.
This is joyful filmmaking, imbued with an infectious, giddy enthusiasm. Rodriguez still seems like a little kid who's just opened up a giant toy box of goodies, almost incredulous that his parents are letting him play with them instead of finishing his homework. It's as if he's goofing around in the backyard with a family of actors, musicians and craftspeople. The film weaves together the truths of domestic life (in-law troubles, bickering, teasing) and what one might dare call wholesome messages about the importance of cooperation with a boisterous adventure yarn ' not always successfully, but admirably nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the script has a rushed feeling. It doesn't hang together well at times, and the appearance of outrÃ Spy Kids villains Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) and Minion (Tony Shaloub) is certain to confuse anyone who hasn't seen the first film. There's very little exposition, and some of it is rather muzzy, much as you might expect from a movie whose cast is desperately seeking a contraption called a Transmooker. Nor is it wrong to wonder whether the effects are "special" when there are over a thousand of them. The eye-candy gadgets and far-out creatures ' robotic bugs, jetpacks, giant flying magnets, two-headed sea serpents, whirling pigtails ' are delightfully imagined and executed with state-of-the-art digital aplomb, but some old farts may find it all a bit frenetic. The nicest bit involves a tip of the hat to Ray Harryhausen and his ambulatory skeletons.