“Spies in Disguise” is a fairly generic title for one of the most bizarre animated movies I’ve seen in recent memory. The whole film feels like it was written by someone with an oddly-specific obsession for both pigeons and pacifism. I’m sure there’s some sort of “dove holding an olive branch” motif going on there but to be honest, I can’t be bothered to dig into the potential symbolism behind a movie where one of the main plot points is that Will Smith continually talks about his newly-obtained cloaca. I swear, if people thought Cats was overly-sexual, then this movie is on a whole other level of weirdness when it comes to human/animal relations.
The plot itself isn’t the most complicated thing in the world, in fact it’s fairly generic. Will Smith is “Lance Sterling,” a United States super spy who’s amazing at everything and extremely over-confident in his abilities to solve every problem with gunfire and explosions. The bad guy is a scary man with a robot hand and a vague European accent who frames Lance for stealing a top-secret solar powered assassin drone, leading to Lance having to flee from his own organization as he attempts to unravel the plot behind the stolen death machine.
Where things start getting muddled up is in the introduction of Walter, played by Tom Holland. Walter is a self-proclaimed “weirdo” who is obsessed with pigeons for some reason, and also believes that violence cannot be solved with more violence. After his police officer mother is killed off-camera in the opening of the film, he dedicates his life to inventing gadgets that allow super spies like Lance to solve their problems nonlethally, despite the fact that nobody seems to want his equipment or even respect him as an intellectual simply for the fact that he doesn’t want to kill people. The entire plot of this movie basically stumbles into existence when Lance accidentally drinks one of Walter’s experimental stealth/transformation cocktails, turning him into a pigeon for the vast majority of the movie.
This is when things start to get weird, as Walter is seemingly obsessed with convincing Lance that being a pigeon is far more advantageous to him as a spy than being his normal human self. After all, pigeons are found in every major city across the world, can fly up to 90 miles per hour (apparently), and most importantly, have a cloaca. If you ever wanted a movie to repeat the word “cloaca” at least 10 times, then Spies in Disguise might just be your dream film. However, to the average moviegoer, a lot of the humor used in Spies in Disguise is pretty gross and oddly visceral, almost reminiscent of an early 2000s “gross out” comedy. Birds vomit used bandages, eat slimy leftover burritos in the garbage, and get covered in dirty toilet water. It can honestly be a little much at times, and I can confirm there’s at least two scenes that made me feel genuinely nauseous, so that’s somewhat of an accomplishment I suppose.
However, that’s not to say the movie is completely devoid of actual humor. While the vast majority of the film is heavily reliant on cheap laughs from long, awkward pauses in dialogue, there are a few scenes that feel so random and extreme that they actually caught me off-guard. There’s a consistent hyper-active energy to this movie, like it was written by animators that weren’t really concerned how scenes connected to one other or flowed in a logical way but rather that they just elicited some kind of immediate reaction from the audience. The repetition of certain jokes did get old after a while but there was just enough humor to hold my interest, at least for the first 2/3rds of the movie.
Unfortunately, where this movie severely falls off is in the actual story and plot progression, especially in terms of the characters and how they develop. The overall message of the film seems to be that “violence only begets more violence,” which is certainly an admirable point to try to convey. However, it’s delivered extremely awkwardly and in a way that does not allow the audience to actually sympathize with the reasoning behind this need for peace beyond a surface-level “hurting people is bad” appeal. This ideology of peace is championed by Walter from the moment his character is introduced as a child, creating nonlethal inventions to help his mother while she’s out on patrol. His desire for the abolition of violence isn’t a trait that he gained through the tragic death of his mother, but rather just a belief it seems like he’s upheld since the day he was born.
Another example of this character non-development is the main antagonist, a man who hates his super spy rival for “what happened in Kazakhstan.” However, we’re never actually shown what happened during that initial encounter or how the violence was somehow avoidable in that situation, despite the antagonist being a man only described as “someone who wanted to hurt a lot of good people.” We don’t know anything about his history, his motives, or his past actions other than what is told to us through our protagonist, and all signs point to him just being a bad man out for revenge after losing the initial battle with Lance. We don’t sympathize with him or this idea that violence somehow caused him to become a supervillain because he’s already described as having an evil, violent past. Plus there’s the fact that he’s ruthlessly murdered an entire facility’s worth of people up this point in the movie just to get access to a government database that will allow him to murder thousands of additional human beings.
I guess it doesn’t help that this movie came out at a fairly inopportune time with the whole “Iran missile strike” situation going on. However, it’s hard to relate to the message that all problems can be solved through nonviolent action when the entire final act of the movie is a gigantic battle with hundreds of people all shooting and beating the crap out of each other with various gadgets. Especially when your audience has absolutely no reason to feel sympathetic towards an antagonist whose violent plan to hurt lots of people for no reason was thwarted, causing him seek revenge by hurting even more people for no reason. I guess seeking a half-intelligent plot or meaningful message in a movie about a super spy pigeon who constantly talks about his cloaca is asking a little much, but when the elements for a potentially interesting story are present and used poorly, it’s almost worse than not having them there at all.
4/10 – Mediocre