It was inevitable that Spy Kids, so good that Miramax released it twice last year, would spawn a sibling. That movie, as neon-bright as the latest Baskin-Robbins flavor, was dizzyingly kinetic and overstuffed, yet you never felt as though writer-director Robert Rodriguez crammed in all the neato toys and trinkets at his disposal. It was unavoidable that the comic-strip-artist-turned-filmmaker would want to revisit this kid-friendly terrain of gadgets and gewgaws. What grown man, especially a filmmaker with young children of his own, doesn't want to live in a world of spry, junior-sized spies, who save the world (and their parents) using sparkly thingamabobs and laser-light doohickeys?
That was what made Spy Kids so utterly charming and winning. For all its special effects, it was Rodriguez's most personal film, an idealized version of the filmmaker (represented by frequent big-screen stand-in Antonio Banderas), his wife (producer Elizabeth Avellan, "played" here by Carla Gugino), and their kids (Alexa Vega as Carmen, Daryl Sabara as Juni), bonding as they saved the world from a demented though ultimately lovable Willy Wonka. So it's far more than merely disappointing that Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams lacks the charm and wit -- and humanity -- of its predecessor. It's dispiriting.
The sequel, which is even more hyper and bursting at the seams than Spy Kids, feels oddly cold and impersonal -- as though it's nothing more than a sequel, snuffed out by Rodriguez's newfound affinity for corny computer-generated special effects, a muddled story line, and a bombastic score.
Rodriguez's earliest films, among them Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, were exhausting indulgences in blood lust. Spy Kids was Rodriguez's first complete success, and he works wonderfully with children. Juni and Carmen Cortez were as wide-eyed and giddy as any children who discover their parents are actually spies. But here, as they're sent onto a remote island to recover a metallic doughnut with the capability of shutting down power worldwide (or something -- it's never clear), the actors seem bored and uncomfortable -- weary veterans at the age of 12. And Banderas and Gugino barely register.
One begins to wonder whether Rodriguez is capable of more than a handful of ideas. His next film is Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a sequel to Desperado, followed most likely by an already greenlit Spy Kids 3. Rodriguez is the gourmet chef who spends his time throwing fries in the grease, which makes sense: Spy Kids 2 is but a supersized version of its predecessor, and indulging in too much only leaves you with a stomachache.