Monday, September 21, 2020

Spies in Disguise is a Better than Average Blue Sky Studios Feature

Blue Sky Studios. Remember the days when they were third in the world of American animation? Back in the 2000s, when Disney Animation was in a rut and Illumination hadn't come out yet. A lack of competition and being one of the first studios producing computer-animated films served Blue Sky well. Didn't hurt that those Ice Age movies kept on making boatloads of cash. But as more animation studios have entered the playing field, Blue Sky sticking to its rigidly formulaic fare has led to it falling far behind the likes of Illumination, Sony Pictures Animation, and a revived Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Released last Christmas, Spies in Disguise did nothing to reverse the studios' box office rut. However, it does demonstrate a more confident artistic spirit than prior Blue Sky productions like Ferdinand and Epic. The story for Spies in Disguise concerns a master spy named Lance Sterling (Will Smith). He's smooth, he's cunning, he's the perfect spy. But he's been compromised in the field. A doppelganger is wandering around the world with his face and making it look like Sterling is responsible for a series of crimes. Now on the run for the very American intelligence agency he worked for, Sterling must turn to the aid of geeky technology expert Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), who previously told Sterling about his plans for an invisibility serum.

As Sterling finds out too late, that invisibility serum entails turning whoever consumes it into a pigeon. Hiding in plain sight, don't you see. Now, the pigeon verison of Sterling must team up with the awkward but creative Beckett to take down the nefarious Killian (Ben Mendelsohn). The presence of a pigeon with the voice of Will Smith might make one think Spies in Disguise will be a parody of spy movies. While it's a heavily wacky comedy, the biggest surprise of Spies in Disguise is how it's trying to be an extension rather than a lampooning of classic James Bond movies. Rather than retreading the same 007 jokes every Austin Powers knock-off has run into the ground, Spies in Disguise opts to do a traditional spy movie that happens to involve a pigeon.

Big action sequences are shot and choreographed like you'd see in any live-action blockbuster movie. Heck, the whole movie is pretty snazzy looking in terms of shot compositions and blocking. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno are constantly making use of all the available space in the 2.35: 1 aspect ratio. Meanwhile, Killian is a baddie who could conceivably inhabit an actual James Bond movie (he's certainly a more interesting foe than Christoph Waltz's Blofeld from Spectre). Kudos to Spies in Disguise for refusing to undercut Killian with an army of Minions knock-off or any kind of comic sidekick. He's allowed to do things like actually kill people and instills a sense of genuine menace into the production.

Blue Sky productions like Epic and Ferdinand constantly felt like they were being pulled away from their more ambitious qualities by being forced into the mold of a traditional family comedy. Spies in Disguise has a bit more confidence in its action/comedy identity, though its comedy elements still carry an obligatory quality. The worse gags are the ones that feel like they were just ported over from past Blue Sky movies. A bathroom gag here, a joke at the expense of South Korean soap operas there. you could have slipped these in from an abandoned Rio 3 script, no problem. More specific jokes, like Sterling requesting the use of a Nickelback album to torture a villain, fare better, but are still more smile-inducing than riotous. 

Even more derivative than the comedy is the character designs. Female characters are comically skinny (can't have realistic body proportions ever, huh) while Walter Beckett looks like every other nerdy white boy in American computer-animated cinema. Spies in Disguise's juxtaposition of cartoony humans with realistic backgrounds is just old hat. It didn't quite work in The Good Dinosaur five years ago and it still isn't a good idea here. Spies in Disguise shows some confidence in its camerawork and tone. Why couldn't it show similar boldness in its character designs? Despite the overly familiar traits, Spies in Disguise does prove diverting more often than not. You get plenty of explosions, a lively Will Smith vocal performance, and a relatively exciting (if predictable) finale. That'll do for a Sunday morning distraction. 

If nothing else, Spies in Disguise does signal that The Peanuts Movie was no fluke, Blue Sky can do better than just mechanically-assembled Ice Age sequels. Let's hope they get even better by the time their Nimona movie comes out...

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