Saturday, December 17, 2011

Movie Review: Spy Kids

Lily was working on her homework the other day and I was catching up on my blog reading. Lily came over to see what I was doing and I happened to be reading a post that had this picture.

(There's a joke in some corners of the internet that redheads have no soul.)

Lily looked at the picture and I remarked, "Isn't that neat? They all have the same color hair."

She looked and added, "And the same color skin! And the same color shirts!"

That made me happy, and I'm going to try to articulate why. As anthropologists are fond of saying, there are more variations within racial groups than between them. Race is a social construct, but it's an amazingly persistent one, and it's probably going to with us as long as there is society.

But kids aren't born understanding race. Lily is five years old now, but she ascribes no more value to skin color than she does to hair color or the color of the clothes someone wears. She sees the differences in how people look, but doesn't think that these differences have any meaning in who they are. It reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night. When asked if he hated America, main character Howard Campbell replied,

"That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It's impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn't interest me. It's no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can't think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can't believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."

I think that's true. We're human beings first and everything else second.

That's why I like Spy Kids. (Also because Daryl Sabara reminds me of my nephew, who is just a great kid.) The family in the movie is of Hispanic heritage, and while this important to them, it's not the only trait they have. Too often, when we see Hispanic characters, that's the only characteristic they have at all. (Maya & Miguel, I'm looking at you.) But not here. The brother and sister fight, the kids want their parents to be proud of them, the parents want the kids to be proud of them, the mom and dad remember what it was like before they had kids, universal concerns that all families deal with regardless of race.

Also, the series has Ricardo Montalbán, who has been awesome forever, and Antonio Banderas who is insanely charismatic and a criminally underrated actor. (My favorite line about him comes from his fame audit: "Antonio is still quite good-looking and a pretty good actor. His wife, Melanie Griffith, is also an actor." Oh, burn!) He memorized his lines phonetically for Mambo Kings, which still impresses me.

Likewise, director Robert Rodriguez is masterful about bringing out the humanity in the kids. I like him so much that I'm willing to pretend that The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl never happened. I'm not much of a fan of the film adaptations of the Harry Potter books, (I think the sixth one is really the only one worth watching. Blasphemy, I know) but I think Rodriguez could have knocked the series out of the park and given us movies that understood what the kids were going through, instead of the soulless Cliffs Notes versions we got.

It's a fun film. Whenever I see a review that suggests that a film has "heart", I read it as "this movie is mawkish", but it does have heart. The characters are fully realized and it has enough absurdity to appeal to kids and adults alike.

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