clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
the cover of spy kids, where two kids in cool spy gear stand against an explosive looking background Image: Troublemaker Studios/Dimension Films

Filed under:

Exploring the zany movies that vibrate with Spy Kids Energy

Unapologetic kids’ movies can remind adults of childhood wonder

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history is the moment in which Carmen and Juni Cortez explore their family’s safe house in Robert Rodriguez’s 2001 movie Spy Kids. While Juni mopes about being left out of their parents’ secret double life, Carmen pops a silver foil packet into a microwave-looking contraption, which zaps the packet into a full McDonalds meal. The moment brings across the feeling of what I think of as Spy Kids Energy: kids on a fantastical adventure together, with bold, bright aesthetic choices, and a sort of disregard for logical conventions, in an attempt to appeal to kid tastes.

Spy Kids, currently streaming on Netflix, delivers on the promise in the title: There are kids, and they become spies. The plot is simple, but the delivery is what makes Spy Kids so memorable. Every set piece comes from an off-kilter world that’s just slightly different from our own. Kids take on big adventures with major dangers, and no one really bats an eye. In fact, the evil scientist’s grand scheme involves using robot children to take over the world, because no one will suspect them.

The sheer joy of watching Spy Kids as a kid is unparalleled: These out-of-the-world adventures seem tangible, like they could happen if you just believed hard enough. Rewatching the movies as an adult makes me appreciate just how good Spy Kids was. The original movie captured a particular aspect of childhood, one reflected in an underappreciated niche of kids’ movies. And Spy Kids Energy doesn’t start or end with Spy Kids. Plenty of movies vibrate with the same neon intensity.

What is Spy Kids Energy?

The particular quirkiness of Spy Kids is exclusively a feature of kids’ movies — and more specifically, movies unapologetically tailored to kids rather than the would-be blockbusters made to simultaneously appeal to every demographic. Spy Kids Energy movies are invariably live-action projects where directors are trying to capture the zaniness of Saturday-morning cartoons, rather than a realistic aesthetic. Even if they do have a realistic factor or framing, it’s meant to contrast with what happens when the entryway into the fantastical arrives.

The eccentricity extends from the visuals to the plot. Most movies with Spy Kids Energy (or SKE) fall under the speculative-fiction umbrella; they all approach their wackier elements with the gleeful disregard for logic that you see when an imaginative kid plays with an amalgamation of toys. They don’t tend to be as polished as, say, the Harry Potter films, which isn’t a bad thing — it’s just emblematic of what makes SKE special. The messiness of films like Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Sky High, and Teen Beach Movie speaks to a playfulness and a childlike, imaginative view of the world. Who needs rules about magic, when instead, you could have Spy Kids’ terrifying machine that transforms prisoners into nightmarish clay creations, or a blaster that turns grown-ups into babies?

SKE films also need a distinct focus on the kid characters. These kids can be true kids or teenagers, as long as they’re a PG world. There needs to be a group dynamic between the kids, so there should be at least two, whether they’re classmates, siblings, or strangers bound together. Adults can be present, but they can’t take on the main roles, and if they do join the group of kids — like Eugenio Derbez’s character in Dora and the Lost City of Gold — they end up embodying the Tagalong Kid trope. You can’t have Spy Kids Energy without the kids!

What isn’t Spy Kids Energy?

Movies that embody the same bright aesthetics and abandonment of logic, but primarily focus on an adult cast, like Elf or the 2017 Jumanji. If the cast of the live-action Scooby Doo movies released in the early 2000s had been 10 years younger, they would’ve hit the mark, though 2009’s made-for-TV Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins and its sequels definitely do. 2018’s A House With a Clock in Its Walls gets close to hitting the formula, but the aesthetic is too polished and not cartoony enough, and the film’s main relationship is between the kid and his adult uncle, played by Jack Black. Holes, the movie adaptation of Louis Sachar’s Newberry Medal winning novel, is perhaps the nearest miss. It has the kids, it has the “slightly off-kilter from our world” vibes, it almost has the color palette. Unfortunately, while it’s a masterful movie exploring the flaws of the criminal-justice system, racism, and poverty, it falls a little too close to reality.

What are the best Spy Kids Energy movies?

Spy Kids isn’t actually the first SKE movie. Lots of kids’ movies from the ’60s onward — titles like The Gnome-Mobile, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Explorers, Matilda, and The Little Vampire — share a similar ethos. But Spy Kids exemplifies it best, and in a way that makes the concept tangible to adults. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, describing it as an “exuberant, colorful extravaganza, wall-to-wall with wildly original sets and visual gimmicks, and smart enough to escape the kids film category and play in the mainstream.” The two other primary Spy Kids movies, released in 2002 and 2003, continued this trend, sending the titular spy kids to a remote island with a reclusive scientist who ponders his beastly creations, and into a video game designed by an evil toymaker bent on destroying the real world.

Robert Rodriguez continued to embody SKE with 2005’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D. That one is an objectively bad movie, but it’s still wacky fun. It’s the ultimate culmination of the specific genre and aesthetic Rodriguez perfected with the Spy Kids movies: Sharkboy and Lavagirl are literal manifestations of a young boy’s imagination, and most of the movie takes place in a kid-charged dream world known as Planet Drool.

But beyond Rodriguez’s family-friendly discography, where can you find Spy Kids Energy?

The quickest answer is in Disney Channel Original Movies, which are mostly family-friendly, kid-centric fantastical adventures that often evoke big SKE. Prime examples? Teen Beach Movie, where two surfer teens get sent directly into an in-universe movie known as Wet Side Story, with no real explanation, and the Descendants trilogy, Disney’s own fanfic, which follows the neon-haired teen offspring of iconic villains.

Not all DCOMs share the theme — while the iconic High School Musical is zany in its own way, it’s still rooted in the real world. No one’s finding a portal to a dimension full of Halloween beings, and instead of singing about being children of Disney villains, the characters sing about high-school cliques. The Thirteenth Year doesn’t fit either — it explores the supernatural, but it still has boring aesthetics and a bland color palette. But that’s all right, because this rich filmography of Disney Channel Original Movies includes four Halloweentown movies, three Zenon movies, and the Zombies duology.

zenon, girl of the 21st century, serves some lewks Disney Channel

Still under the Disney umbrella is 2005’s Sky High, which follows a group of teenagers attending a special school for superheroes. The cast is a bit older, but it’s still a squeaky-clean, Disneyfied version of high school. Everyone wears bright, bold colors. At the movie’s most dramatic moment, the adults are turned into babies, rendering them totally useless, so the cast of plucky teens and their garish CG powers must save the day.

Tapping into the past, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is an early example of SKE, with its otherworldly chocolate factory, plucky kid protagonist, and basically magical candy. Adaptations of Roald Dahl’s works do tend to skew toward Spy Kids Energy, though the fact that multiple kids compete for the grand prize in Willy Wonka makes it the best example. SKE dynamics between kids don’t have to be positive!

Don’t mistake the list of examples from the ’00s and before as a case of “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Studios are still occasionally making Spy Kids Energy movies; it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. 2019’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a perfect example of Spy Kids Energy for a new set of kids. The movie tossed Dora from an exciting archaeological adventure into a realistic high-school setting, which could’ve disqualified it. But the minute Dora and her friends enter the jungle, they set off on an archaeological trek that could give Indiana Jones a run for his money. They encounter quicksand, giant bugs, booby-trapped temples, mystical puzzles, and every possible archaeological adventure movie trope, but kidified.

At the very heart of Dora — at the very heart of all these movies — is imagination and creative spirit, evoking the childhood idealism of playtime. It’s taking the big adventures found in grownup movies, and repackaging them with vivid colors, triumphant happy endings, and messages about believing in imagination, friends, and yourself. Spy Kids Energy is real. Even objectively bad SKE movies remind adult audiences of the escapism of childhood whimsy. They may not have entirely coherent plots, but they’re still entertaining.

These movies let kids see themselves as heroes. They’re not sidekicks along for a big adventure, or plot devices for adult heroes, they’re the central focus for cartoonish adventures. The best movies with Spy Kids Energy — like Spy Kids itself — don’t simply remind adults of what it’s like to be a kid; they transcend genre trappings and make adults believe in that magic once more.

Spy Kids is available on Netflix.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon