Robert Rodriguez, the talented creator of zippy, gory shoot-em-ups both offbeat ("El Mariachi") and broadly commercial ("Desperado"), may have topped himself with a surprising detour, a made-for-summer entertainment released in the spring. A sort of James Bond adventure for the sweetened-cereal set, "Spy Kids," is a pleasantly boomeranging, cartoony action romp that achieves something new in the kiddy-movie genre: It's an all-ages flick that won't have adults consoling themselves with the knowledge that it will all be over soon. Given the film's likable performances and surprising, funny plot turns, viewers over the age of 12 may even approach the prospect of a sequel without the usual feeling of paralytic dread.
Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), the pint-sized leads of "Spy Kids," have heroism in their blood. Their parents -- handsome Gregorio (Antonio Banderas, playing everything with a twinkle in his eye) and sexy Ingrid (Carla Gugino) -- are retired spies who met while on duty. They were assigned to assassinate one another, but instead wound up falling in love (like Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi's Honor"). All of this is related in flashback during a campy, lightning-fast sequence near the start of the movie. It's a bracing blastoff.
Spookery, as it turns out, is a hard habit to break. To all appearances, Gregorio, Ingrid and the kids are leading a life of quiet middle-class domesticity in the Lone Star State. The sibs spend their days going to school and watching a cheery children's show hosted by the slightly creepy Floogle (Alan Cumming). The parents do ... uh, whatever it is that parents do. They officially work as "consultants" for their former employers. On the sly, though, they're actively involved in coordinating covert operations all around the globe.
Nobody's the wiser until the day Mom and Dad disappear on a mystery assignment, and the children -- with the help of their "Uncle" Felix (Cheech Marin) -- are forced to flee the family home via a secret compartment and a super-sleek land-and-sea getaway vehicle. Even more fantastic is the revelation of the breadwinners' true occupations. "My parents can't be spies," the surprised, girlpower-strong Carmen tells her fearful little brother. "They're not cool enough."
Recruited as second-generation agents, Carmen and Juni prove cool and capable, remarkably adaptable to new situations and fully able to carry out any number of brave new tasks. Their mission is straightforward enough: to rescue Gregorio and Ingrid from the clutches of the evil Floogle, and to save the world from destruction.
"Spy Kids" is chock full of neat-o gadgets, including bubblegum that doubles as a (nonfatal) weapon, book bags that turn into jet packs and space-age squares of nutrients that are transformed into Big Macs. The baddies are also lots of fun, particularly the Pee Wee Herman knock-off Foogle and his nerdy, bespectacled sidekick Minion (Tony Shalhoub). More good news for watchful parents: Rodriguez pulls it all off without a drop of blood, a single profanity or any sexual double entendres. The "PG" rating, we're told, is for "action."