“Spy Kids” was one of 2001’s surprise box office hits, grossing over $110 million domestically, more than three times its production budget. The special-effects-heavy tale of two young spies on a mission to rescue their captive parents won over the press and public alike.

Paul Wong
Courtsey of Dimension Films
Carla Gugino, Antonio Banderas, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara ride hard in `Spy Kids 2.”

The man behind the project was Robert Rodriguez, a young Latino Texan who made his celluloid mark in 1992 with the mecha-low-budget guitar-slinger “El Mariachi.” Produced for a mere $7,000, Rodriguez funded the film by submitting his body to various medical tests. The poking and prodding paid off, and Rodriguez’s debut became a film festival phenom.

His second feature came in 1995 with the Antonio Banderas starrer “Desperado,” a pseudo-sequel to “El Mariachi.” This time around the budget was in the millions, and all of it came back thanks to impressive box office ticket sales. Rodriguez had now achieved great cinematic success in both the Hollywood and independent realms of film.

“From Dusk Till Dawn,” released in 1996, and 1998’s “The Faculty” followed, with Rodriguez taking on new responsibilities with each new film. He is more than just another writer/director, he also serves as editor, composer, production designer, sound mixer, cinematographer, producer and even helps with the special effects. And most of it is done in the garage of his home he calls “Spywalker Ranch.” To say that Robert Rodriguez is an autuer would be an drastic understatement.

Flashing forward to present day, “Spy Kids 2” opens in a summer of mediocrity for kids’ movies, as promising big budget stories “Lilo & Stich” and “Stuart Little 2” turned out to be disappointments. Rodriguez has been able to repeat his successful formula and make his sequel as entertaining as his original.

“Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams” begins with the President of the United States’ daughter perusing an amusement park with a smilin’ park owner (Bill Paxton, “Commando”) as her tour guide. We are introduced to several of the popular attractions, each one showing off the creativity of Rodriguez and his crew. There is “The Whipper Snapper,” a ride where passengers sit in an enclosed ball and are literally hurled through the air on the end of a giant whip. But none of these are enough to impress the President’s daughter.

Enter “The Juggler.” As the proud park owner tells us, this is the amusement park ride to end all amusement park rides. Suddenly the little girl has found her perfect little thrill-seeker and all is well. Not so fast. When the ride experiences some technical problems and the safety of the President’s daughter is at risk, only one person can save her from danger. Make that two people.

Here come the Spy Kids. Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) return to action as they are called in by the Secret Service to save the day. But when the rescue takes too long, two more small soldiers are requested for assistance. Gary (Matthew O’Leary, “Frailty”) and Gerti (Emily Osment, sister of Haley Joel Osment) Giggles serve as the Buckeyes to Carmen and Juni’s Wolverines.

As the film progresses, we are introduced to several wonderful new characters and locations, each with a personal flair from Rodriguez. “Spy Kids 2” is definitely bigger than its predecessor, but the director was able to maintain the budget of $30 million, a small chunk of change in the movie business today.

One of the foundations from which the success of the “Spy Kids” saga is built on is the relationship between siblings Carmen and Juni. Young actors Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara are talented young performers who play against one another perfectly. Their sibling relationship seems eerily natural and it is hard to believe they are not brother and sister in reality. From their incessant bickering to their occasional agreement, every bit of dialogue spouted between them feels authentic.

The adult members of the cast prove equally gifted and seem to be having just as much fun in the process. Antonio Banderas is his usual charming self, while Carla Gugino is once again easy on the eyes. There are countless other memorable, but smaller roles, from Mike Judge, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Tony Shalhoub and Ricardo Montalban just to name a few.

Some may pass off the special effects in the movie as amateurish, but said viewers would prove only to be cinematically oblivious. The computer generated creatures in the film resemble the old stop motion animation pioneered by special effects creative wizard Ray Harryhausen, most famous for his work on “Clash of the Titans” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” It is these little details in “Spy Kids 2” that make the movie achieve greatness.

If M. Night Shyamalan (“Signs”) is the next Steven Spielberg, Robert Rodriguez might be our next George Lucas. Storytellers Lucas and Rodriguez both enjoy an incredible sense of independence thanks to their success. Rodriguez has embraced the digital era of filmmaking with open arms, to the point where he used the same specialized camera that was used over the past few years to shoot “Attack of the Clones.”

“Spy Kids” and its sequel are two examples of Hollywood’s rarest breed, the kid movie that has the elusive crossover appeal for adults. Thankfully the “Spy Kids” story is not over, the third installment of the trilogy will be in theaters on July 23, 2003.

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