2019 has been a weird year. So it seems fittingly surreal to be closing it by encouraging you to rush out and see an animated film about a pigeon super-spy and his scientist creator. Spies in Disguise is that film, Will Smith is that pigeon, and verily they are the spoonful of sugar you need right now.
Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) has been inventing whimsical safety solutions since he was a little boy in odd socks dousing his police officer mother in glitter before her shift. His indulgent mum was a driving force behind his dreams, reminding him that while she was out keeping their neighbourhood safe his inventions would one day do the same for the world. She encouraged Walter to always believe Team Weird will save the day.
Adulthood appears to have disproven that theory. Walter’s sense of whimsy and embrace of the weird isn’t such a hit at the CIA in fact, his ‘do no harm’ gadgets come very close to cramping their top agent’s style. Luckily super-spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) has style (and self-assurance) to spare. He shrugs off pleas to wait for back up, instead dancing (and quipping) rings around the minions of an arms dealer attempting high tech shenanigans in Japan.
The only chinks in the muscle-flattering skin-tight armour of this Bourne/Bond hybrid hero are his supersized ego and his irrational dislike of pigeons. Unfortunately for Lance, the two are about to collide and take him down. The agent woefully underestimates the dark vision and technological arsenal of Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) and when the arms dealer manoeuvres Lance into the CIA’s crosshairs, he has to seek help from the one guy he never wanted to see again.
Put aside all your preconceptions as we tell you that, yes, Lance does at this point get turned into a pigeon because this is where the utter, daft, genius of Spies in Disguise kicks in. Really. Somehow the most preposterous plot device in the world elevates a generic action-adventure into a genuinely funny and unexpectedly emotional buddy comedy that might end up being the best thing you see this Christmas.
Debut feature directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (Quane previously made a Smurfs Christmas short) have strong backgrounds in animation and it shows. The screen dances with dynamic visual gags and smart uses of perspective, simultaneously referencing cinematic spy greats and keeping young audiences enthralled with dynamic action, a literal bird’s eye view and a banging soundtrack. And all are deployed with as much precision as Killian’s weaponised drones or the humour of the whip-smart script.
There is a lovely sensitivity in the way Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor’s screenplay deals with loss, loneliness and the ripple effect of grief. Their carefully considered words play to the strengths of both leads but Tom Holland, in particular, has a wealth of opportunities to invert the lonely nerd trope and exploit his charisma to engage us entirely in every eye-rolling avian exploit. Indefatigable IA agent Marcy (Rashida Jones) ably maintains the snark.
From set-pieces involving a fat incapacitated gangster and a hotel room door to the unrelenting genius of Lance’s brand new pigeon posse – with Finding Nemo levels of comical characterisation – Spies in Disguise is packed with laughs and the often bragged of but rarely achieved ‘something for everyone’ quality parents long for from holiday fare. That Mark Ronson produced soundtrack will have your toes tapping long after the credits roll and we defy you not to be screeching “It takes two to make a thing go riiiight!” as Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock reprise the tune inside your head ALL the way home.
Spies in Disguise opens across the UK on 26th December