Gina Rodriguez, Everly Carganilla, Connor Esterson and Zachary Levi in Spy Kids: Armageddon. Photograph: TheGuardian/Robert Rodriguez/Netflix
For a few late millennials, the Spy Kids franchise has assumed a sort of vaguely remembered, but beloved mantle. Now we have Spy Kids: Armageddon.
I was seven years old when the first film hit theaters or, more accurately for the target demographic, hit a child’s tentpoles of culture – Happy Meal toys, TV advertisements, whatever spy “gear” classmates brought in for show and tell.
The movies, particularly the 2001 original, were wacky and grandiose, goofily futurist adventures with cartoonish stakes. If you were a kid, Spy Kids (along with the 2002 sequel and 2003 3D edition) were an ultimate fantasy, with sick gadgets and cool parents (international super spies played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino).
Spy Kids: Armageddon, Netflix’s reboot of the franchise with the original writer-director Robert Rodriguez, understands the wells of nostalgia it’s tapping, though it doesn’t always reach it. To be fair, it doesn’t really have to; like the original, the 94-minute film is aimed squarely at children. As the ultimate responsibilities (and heroics) fell to Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa PenaVega and Daryl Sabara), so too, do world-threatening circumstances demand Tony (Connor Esterson) and Patty Tango-Torrez (Everly Carganilla) step up. The adults, particularly the hapless operators of the spy group OSS, are extraneous.
As with the original, the reboot is set in Austin, Texas, where the Tango-Torrezes live unassuming lives in a device-laden pad. Unbeknownst to their children, Terrence (Zachary Levi, tapping into humor from his Chuck days) and Nora (Gina Rodriguez), are active super-spies in possession of the Armageddon code, which has the ability to hack into any device in the world and maybe all of them at once.
Tony and Patty just want to play video games and are frustrated by their dad’s strict tech rules. He views their elaborate video game of choice as brain rot; they see it as training.
Perhaps the best nod to adults is that the creator of this game, a mercurial, power-hungry tech baron nicknamed The King (Billy Magnussen, not on the level of Alan Cumming’s Fegan Floop but still vulnerable and cartoonishly sinister), reads as a parody of Elon Musk. The King covets the Armageddon code to force every operator and every electronic device to play video games; as experts, Tony and Patty are perfectly positioned to both unlock secret codes and battle the robot video game villains The King unleashes on their household.
Thus ensues a cheeky, ever sunny battle for world domination, replete with fantastical tools and located primarily within the King’s retro, chunky polygon-filled video game castle. (“Let them do what they do best: play games,” the OSS chief Devlin says of the kids; everyone gets the signature black shades.)
More than two decades since the original, Rodriguez maintains his ability to invoke a child’s sense of adventure and absurdity (though there’s nothing quite as deranged as a Thumb Thumb here); the fantasy of actually being the character in the video, embodying the hero, remains intact.
It’s a bit ironic that, for all the franchise’s futurist gusto, there’s considerable magic lost to the procession of movies into Netflix aesthetic and whole-scale CGI. Partnered with Skydance and Spyglass Media Group, Netflix’s Spy Kids demonstrates both the visual ambition and flatness of would-be streaming blockbusters. The King’s castle has video game pleasures – blocks materializing and disappearing into thin air, a platform wobbling along a river of blue and orange lava – but not the older films’ sense of visual depth or silliness.
There’s a feeling, especially as the movie barrels toward its final video game-set confrontation, that the playfulness of the Spy Kids ethos is battling the limitations of digital production.
That’s the typical devil’s bargain for movie nostalgia – for all the attention it inherently attracts, there’s alchemy and originality that cannot be reclaimed. True to form, the new Spy Kids gestures at old successes, and then sands them down. Not that the new generation, to whom its explicitly marketed, will probably notice.
Spy Kids: Armageddon did, at least, remind me of the blind delights of childhood again, and the kids who will likely enjoy this. Credit: Adrian Horton/ TheGuardian UK