Mission Accomplished, Yet Again

For MTIn "Spy Kids 2," the Cortez children take up espionage again — but now they face stiff competition from other wannabe spy kids.
Robert Rodriguez is more than in touch with his inner child, he's involved in a lucrative partnership with the little fellow. Following the disarmingly clever and successful "Spy Kids" (2001) with a sequel, "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams," that's almost as good, he's proving himself to be perhaps the most gifted maker of live-action family adventure films around.

While some filmmakers are proud to be one-man bands, Rodriguez is more like a single-person orchestra. When he calls "Spy Kids 2" "a Robert Rodriguez movie," he's not hogging recognition. If you add in the three songs he co-wrote, the credits list him more than a dozen times, ranging from the predictable writer/director/producer and director of photography to the more arcane production designer/editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer and visual effects supervisor. It's not surprising that he says he doesn't like to sleep.

What all this has done is give "Spy Kids 2" a consistent sensibility. Though it's longer and more elaborate than it needs to be, it shares its predecessor's smart but relaxed sense of humor, a sophisticated imagination and the ability to be sharp and playful without being malicious. It may have the occasional camel poop joke, but it neither descends to lowest-common-denominator humor nor treats its kid protagonists with anything less than complete respect.

"Spy Kids 2" has also continued the first film's tradition of coming up with wacky gadgets for its secret agents to use. There are watches that do so much there's no room for them to tell time, a bug-eyed Dragon Spy submarine, and the irresistible R.A.L.P.H., a bug-sized personal robot that can tie a bow tie as well as brush it off.

Here and elsewhere, the film also makes such inventive use of computer-generated special effects, including some mind-bending rides at something called the Troublemaker Theme Park, that they underline how predictable much current work has become.

"Spy Kids 2" picks up with the Cortez family, the United States' favorite Latino espionage ensemble, where the last film left off. Kids Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) know that parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) are secret agents in the spy organization OSS and want to join the family business themselves.

Not only are the kids spies, they've also got lots of competition. The notion of having spy kids on your team has now become a worldwide program, complete with its own school. Naturally, the kids want more responsibility and bigger missions, and the parents worry that they won't be needed anymore.

With success comes competition, and the Cortez kids are engaged in a rivalry with the Giggles siblings, teenage careerist Gary (Matt O'Leary), on whom Carmen has a secret crush, and feisty young Gerti (Emily Osment, Haley Joel's younger sister). The Giggles kids always seem to have the newest gear and the trendiest clothes, and their dad Donnagon (Mike Judge) just happens to be a rival of Gregorio Cortez in the grown-up OSS.

"Spy Kids 2" begins in an amusement park run by Dinky Winks (an amusing Bill Paxton) and being visited by young Alexandra (Taylor Momsen of 2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), the daughter of the president. Irked that her dad doesn't have time for her, she's lifted the supersecret Transmooker Device from his office, not caring one whit that should the device fall into the proverbial "wrong hands," the world would be doomed.

The trail of the Transmooker ends up leading to that Island of Lost Dreams of the title, and its principal dreamer, a gently demented scientist named Romero who's created all kinds of imaginative creatures wondrous to behold. (Romero is played by Steve Buscemi, who does a fine job of adjusting his offbeat style to the demands of a family film.)

One reason "Spy Kids 2" is as long as it is, is that Rodriguez wanted to give cameos to first-film stalwarts like Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) and Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub) while also introducing new characters like Ingrid Cortez's parents, played by Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor.

He also had to find time (and this was a good idea) to include the lessons he wants youngsters to learn from his film, notions that range from the centrality of family to the way simple things like a rubber band can be more helpful than the latest nanotechnology.

Inevitably for a sequel, one thing "Spy Kids 2" doesn't have is the excitement of seeing something fresh and new. Rodriguez has tried to compensate by tossing in references to other films, from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Jurassic Park" to a dueling-skeletons tribute to animation wizard Ray Harryhausen. A lesser film might have been overwhelmed by all this, but it's a tribute to Rodriguez's imagination that "Spy Kids 2" remains indisputably its own picture through it all.