Objectively speaking, 2001 was a stacked year for children’s movies: Pixar’s Monster’s Inc., the first installment of Harry Potter, Shrek, Osmosis Jones, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and The Princess Diaries all graced the silver screen that year, many of them spawning subsequent franchises and spin-offs. Though they are remembered these days to varying degrees, none of the aforementioned titles are as steeped in a director’s existing cinematic lexicon like Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, particularly when it comes to the director’s subtle but distinct method of folding Latino sensibilities into his work.
Children’s movies today don’t seem markedly different than they did 20 years ago. Concepts that might’ve felt fresh in 2001 have been run into the ground, if not abandoned entirely: Shrek set a crude template for many a CGI-animated kids movie to follow thereafter, from an abundance of celebrity voice actors to high(er)-brow fart humor. The Harry Potter franchise has inexplicably been chugging along for so long that it can’t help but feel like beating a long-dead horse. Both have, more or less, been robust spin-off-generating intellectual property machines since. In contrast, children’s media like Osmosis Jones and Jimmy Neutron don’t really get made anymore, let alone serve as back-door TV pilots as they both once did, and coming-of-age romances like The Princess Diaries are more likely to be products of the straight-to-streaming pipeline than given a proper theatrical release. In fact, teen rom-coms a la To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before routinely engage in superficial back-patting over casting non-white actors in starring roles as opposed to simply presenting these characters as unquestionably deserving of a platform. This fact alone makes Spy Kids a refreshing watch all these years later—the understated yet deeply rooted sense of multiculturalism registers as far more authentic than the self-congratulatory but ultimately unproductive “wokeness” that runs rampant today.
Back in 2001, I was six years old. While I have some hazy memories of seeing Spy Kids on the big screen, my mind has preserved very little of my initial visceral reactions. All that I can say for certain is that after seeing the film, my siblings and I became obsessed. Recollections of inserting the Spy Kids VHS into the VCR are much more potent, the puffy plastic tape shells warping over time from constant handling. What really struck us about the film was seeing a family that looked like ours on screen: Multicultural parents with biracial children; the Latino family dynamic, complete with uncles who apparently aren’t really your uncles; dramatic-borderline-unbelievable wedding stories galore. As the fair-skinned children of an American father and a Mexican mother, we often felt it easier to assume strictly white American identities when not interacting with our Mexican extended family or spending the summer at our abuelo’s house in Morelos. Spy Kids was an early and singular example of the ordinary beauty inherent in multifaceted backgrounds; how existing in multiple worlds can make you a stronger, more sensitive person.
The film follows siblings Carmen (Alexa PenaVega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) Cortez navigating the pitfalls of early adolescence, such as school bullies, bed wetting and the timeless plight of having your sibling relentlessly mimic you. Secrets lay amid their classic kid conundrums: Juni fabricates the existence of schoolyard playmates, while Carmen seeks independence from her family through rebellion (“I’ve been skipping school, taking ferry rides in the city, running off to Belize”). Though ostensibly retired, their parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) are actually professional government spies who met when both were ironically assigned to assassinate the other. When the parental duo decide to embark on a secret mission for old time’s sake, they are quickly captured by Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a regally dressed (albeit Hot Topic-leaning) mad scientist who happens to be the brain behind Juni’s favorite TV show. Floop and his aptly named minion, Minion (Tony Shalhoub), conspire to take over the world via robotic replicas of the global elite’s children—that is, if Minion can get Floop to care more about their diabolical plan than his children’s TV program. After their “uncle” Felix (Cheech Marin) quickly explains their family’s classified affairs, Carmen and Juni immediately spring into action, utilizing a hidden trove of spy tech ranging from jetpacks to “electroshock gumballs” in order to literally blast off and save their parents.
Though the involvement of notable Spaniard Antonio Banderas renders the Cortez family technically Hispanic and not Latino, the ostensible U.S. setting and Rodriguez’s filmography allow the film’s family to read as Mexican-American, and having Gregorio’s brother portrayed by Chicano icon Danny Trejo certainly helps. The film never overtly addresses the family’s bicultural identity, aside from a few quips from Banderas (“Latinos, very emotional,” he shrugs as he embraces his bawling brother after they reunite) and Carmen’s incredibly long, accent-twinged full name—Carmen Elizabeth Juanita Echo Sky Bravo Cortez—a source of embarrassment for Carmen that later serves as a point of literal empowerment when it’s revealed to be a confidential passcode. The Latino elements are so effectively woven into the very fabric of the film that Spanish dialogue is thrown in just for the hell of it. An awestruck child shouts “¡Yo quiero zapatos como esos!” (“I want shoes like that!”) after Carmen and Juni blast off from a playground with some newly-acquired jet sneakers.
Spy Kids is distinctly a Rodriguez film, utilizing techniques and callbacks to his earlier filmography without alienating a PG crowd that would have had no business catching El Mariachi or From Dusk till Dawn. Working as writer, director and editor, Rodriguez’s trademark style of fast cuts and zooms (and the humor they often carry) translate perfectly to a children’s adventure movie. Every fight scene is intense but never scary, and always in some way absurd. Even recurring players in Rodriguez’s company like Trejo and Marin channel their strengths as actors—stoic intensity and character comedy, respectively—which are utilized as effectively in Spy Kids as they are in Desperado (which saw Banderas collaborate with Rodriguez for the first time).
The film itself is rooted perfectly in an early aughts aesthetic. While the garish CGI thumb monsters and killer sharks certainly look goofy in 2021, they stand in welcome contrast to more recent work. Today, CGI is largely equated with photorealism, evident in the recent Lion King remake alongside every Marvel franchise film since Iron Man. The clunkiness of Spy Kids’s visual effects works ever in its favor, particularly when it comes to Floop’s unapologetically weird show with its accompanying Danny Elfman theme music. Sure, the guileless monsters and twisted backdrop could look more convincing, but its outdated appearance encourages present-day reverence; in a similar vein of corny practical effects work from films of the 80s or even before, these supposedly shoddy images endearingly reveal the filmmaking craft typical of the time period.
Rodriguez’s cinematic language is consistently fresh while remaining foolproof, an impressive feat considering his penchant for working with the same pool of actors and investigating themes of Mexican culture and liminal identities ad infinitum in his work. He’s remained highly adaptable yet aware of what works uniquely well for him, evident in more recent endeavors like Machete and Alita: Battle Angel. Granted, Rodriguez has somewhat overextended the popularity of the Spy Kids franchise, which ultimately culminated in a lackluster fourth installment (that is until it was recently unveiled that the filmmaker would be developing a new Spy Kids for Netflix).
Whether or not Rodriguez is completely guilt-free of milking his projects far beyond their ability to yield worthwhile results, the style of Spy Kids is impeccably ingrained in a certain early-aughts sensibility that keeps adult re-watchers immersed in a wave of nostalgia that also reflects a deep lack of imagination in contemporary family movies. The microwave that re-hydrates an entire McDonald’s meal remains one of the most astonishing and envy-inducing gizmos I’ve ever seen on film; the electroshock gumballs also registered as weirdly appetizing to 7-year-old me. The inventive gadget design, in particular, practically invites kids to imagine possessing such powerful toys, tapping into a sense of childlike playful ingenuity.
An authentic air of whimsy truly carries Spy Kids. This is certainly intrinsic to its core message, one that encourages kids to own their personal quirks and idiosyncrasies in lieu of conforming to what is deemed normal or expected. Yet there is definitely a twinge of what this means for the children of Latinos who are expected to assimilate completely to American traditions and ideals. My siblings and I grew up with a stubborn refusal to learn Spanish, partially spawned when my sister was unjustly placed in an ESL class upon our suburban elementary school realizing that our mother was born in Mexico. Teachers often assumed our mom was actually our nanny, a fact that gave us schadenfreude at the time and only recently led us to more articulately unpack the basis of the issue. In a monolithic suburbia, our family dynamic was not only unconventional, but practically unthinkable in the minds of white people. Meanwhile, Spy Kids was the goofy and genuine first instance for my family to see a loving portrayal of Latino-American family life, its validity never questioned or undermined. Knowing that Rodriguez himself exists between his native Texas and Mexico, it makes sense for the concept of dual-identity to crop up throughout much of his work. Spy Kids, to this day, is certainly no exception.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.