Spies in Disguise review – Will Smith brings pecks appeal to animated caper

A secret agent ruffles feathers in the espionage world when he is accidentally transformed into a pigeon in this entertaining family adventure

The Disney acquisition of Fox reportedly held up for a year this big new animated family adventure for Christmas: an amiable quasi-bodyswap romp that has in any case been long in development. It was originally inspired by an award-winning animated short back in 2009 from screenwriter and animator Lucas Martell called Pigeon: Impossible, about a pigeon that has apparently got hold of the US president’s “nuclear football”. Now this has evolved into a completely new film by screenwriters Cindy David, Lloyd Copeland and Lloyd Taylor and for which story artist Troy Quane and animator Nick Bruno are jointly making their feature directorial debut.

Will Smith voices Lance Sterling, a supercool spy sporting a tux, a trimmed goatee and an absurdly over-inflated upper body; he’s a suave figure who is an athlete, sophisticate and general warrior in America’s cause. Lance’s underling-slash-helpmeet is the dorky young scientist and tech whiz Walter Beckett (voiced by Tom Holland) who is there to supply the gadgets and generally be the Q to Lance’s Bond. Walter, like the enlightened millennial that he is, is an advocate of non-violent weaponry. He has invented a device that embraces the enemy in a disarming hug, and also a kind of party-popper kitten that explodes in a shower of wondrous sparkles, causing enemies to dissolve into an awestruck disarmed state of gentleness at the loveliness of what they are witnessing.

Walter’s pièce de résistance is his new technology in biotransformational disguise, allowing agents to turn into whatever animals they wish. But a bizarre lab mishap causes Lance to turn into a pigeon, and there appears to be some sort of issue concerning the availability of an antidote. So pigeon-Lance – grumpily complaining all the time about the appalling existential indignity of being a pigeon – has to work with Walter in a much more demeaningly submissive way than before.

They have to take on the sinister mastermind Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) who has an evil bionic claw instead of a hand – a symbol of the evil potential of technology that Walter has made it his life’s work to avoid. But Killian has managed to slander Lance as a traitor, and now his agency handler Jenkins (Reba McEntire) and internal affairs agent Marcy (Rashida Jones) have to bring in someone who they now believe is a bad guy gone awol.

There are some decent laughs and fun as Smith and Holland provide the bickering dialogue accompaniment for Lance and Walter, the ill-matched duo who fight the forces of darkness in locations ranging from Venice to Washington DC. Lance’s worst moment of enforced pigeonhood comes when he has to visit the bathroom and realises that what he primly calls number ones and number twos come out of the same orifice: the cloaca. (A teachable moment for one and all.)

As with so many family animations right now, I felt that the script stays on the safe side, with fewer smart lines and ironic gags than I might have wished for, but this is a good-natured entertainment.

• Spies in Disguise is released in the US on 25 December, in the UK on 26 December and in Australia on 1 January.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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