As a live action actor, Will Smith has not exactly been lighting it up in recent years. In fact, in the past 10 years, his only true success was 2015’s Focus, and even that got middling reviews. However, as the mostly animated Genie in the new version of Aladdin and now as the lead in the animated Spies in Disguise, the ability to utilize elements not available to him in live action movies has proven to be a boon for his career.
Smith plays Lance Sterling, a spy who plays by his own rules and prefers to work by himself. His antics raise the ire of his boss (Reba McEntire), but earn him praise and admiration from most of his co-workers. They include gadget engineer Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), whose ideas are way outside of the box and get him banished to a cubicle just outside of the bathroom.
When one of Sterling’s missions runs him afoul of evil mastermind Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) and his own agency, he decides to go into hiding. He turns to Walter, who had been developing a new idea that could make things disappear. When Sterling accidentally ingests the potion, it becomes mixed with one of Walter’s pigeon’s feathers, turning Sterling into, you guessed it, a pigeon.
The spy genre, especially as portrayed in the James Bond and Mission: Impossible series, is one where filmmakers can let their creativity go wild. Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, working from a script by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor, go all in, dreaming up innumerable outlandish concepts. Because it’s an animated film, none of seems out of place and almost everything shown is tons of fun.
Sterling’s inability to use his normal skills as a pigeon and the way he and Walter find alternative methods is also highly entertaining. Things that would seem unnatural and goofy in a live action film make total sense in the context of this film. Sterling also attracts the attention of an eccentric group of real pigeons, and the way they help him throughout the film is both hilarious and strangely touching.
The filmmakers also do a great job fleshing out their characters. As the main characters, Sterling and Walter are a given, but Killian is given more than just evil plotting to do. Also interesting is Marcy (Rashida Jones), an internal affairs officer at the spy agency who tracks Sterling around the world.
At his best, Smith has just seemed cooler than most other actors, and that comes through loud and clear here, even in animated form. As Holland has shown as Spider-Man, he has an innocent goofiness that works well for this character, too. Jones gives Marcy a nice spunk, and Mendelsohn, experienced at playing villains in movies like Rogue One, is right at home.
With lots of Oscar-worthy dramas and Star Wars dominating theaters right now, Spies in Disguise is great counter-programming and a perfect holiday option for families. It’s also the best thing Smith has made in years; maybe he’ll use it as a springboard toward better live action choices in the future.