Spy Kids: A happy Latino family with extra espionage

2001’s Spy Kids was either going to be awesome or horribly annoying. That’s how movies written for kids work. Lucky for us, it’s awesome.

Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino play Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, spies on opposite sides who fell in love and have since married, settled down, and had two children. Their children, who have no idea their parents were once spies, are Carmen (Alexa Vega who is half Colombian) and Juni (Daryl Sabara, who is Jewish and as far as I can tell, has no Hispanic background.)

When Gregorio and Ingrid are called back into action, then abducted by the forces of evil, Carmen and Juni have to work together to find and save their parents. Their “uncle” Felix (Cheech Marin) comes to get them, but the forces of evil show up soon after and overpower him while the children flee. Then it turns out that one of their parents’ colleagues, Ms. Gradenko (Teri Hatcher), is in on the abduction, so the children are basically on their own.

I loved the film’s cues that it’s the female half of this family that’s starving for a little adventure.

This movie starts off with Ingrid’s barely hidden longing for the life she left behind. She loves her family, but she also wishes she could have that thrill back. Gregorio is the one who downplays the practicality of combining spying and parenting (although he seems to be doing a little more work on the side than he lets on, and he assumes that he would be the one to go on a mission if necessary.) Carmen, it is revealed, has been sneaking away from school and basically leading a double life (an international one, no less).

After their parents’ abduction, the children eventually track down Machete, Gregorio’s estranged brother (Danny Trejo) and steal a vehicle and a bunch of spy gear from him so they can free their parents. As they take on the type of work their parents do, Juni realizes that he’s perfectly capable, and Carmen learns to be a better sister. By the end, the children have become full-fledged agents themselves. Machete reconciles with Gregorio, and the entire family vows to stop keeping secrets from each other and work as a team.

I particularly appreciated Ingrid’s role in this film. She’s a mother and an agent, but she doesn’t head off to fight the good fight because she’s a mother, to save her children. She does it because it’s her job, and she loves it. It makes her a whole person. She’s smart, determined, and tough, and watching her work as an equal with her husband is lovely.

Her daughter, Carmen, has inherited many of her characteristics, and even when she’s being a brat to her brother, she’s fun to watch. She starts off as a dreamer and ends up as a tough, capable girl with a bright future in espionage. The presence of both mother and daughter in the film gets away from the Only Woman scenario. It also seems perfectly normal for her to carry on her family’s trade, just as it’s normal for her brother. (The presence of evil robots that look just like the children provides an opportunity for us to see Evil Carmen as well, and that’s fun.)

Tracy McLoone, in her review at Pop Matters, argues that the Cortez family is a step forward for Hollywood: “a kind of harmless difference: exotic, but with enough Hollywood familiarity to make them – and the movie as well – charmingly offbeat rather than threateningly disturbing. […] These are actual Latino characters – albeit distinctly upper-class – who are neither peripheral nor criminal nor Rosie Perez.” I don’t agree with McLoone that Ingrid is possibly supposed to be from another Latin American country, unless the name Ingrid is more popular in Latin America than I would have guessed. It was absolutely refreshing, though, to see an entire children’s film about a healthy, happy Latino family. On the other hand, it was somewhat depressing to realize that if someone who looks like Danny Trejo had been cast as Gregorio, or the other three family members spoke with as much of an accent as Banderas does, it would probably never have been made.

Baby steps, I guess.

While the clownish antics of bad guys Tony Shalhoub (whose parents are from Lebanon) and Alan Cummings get old with multiple viewings, overall this is a solid film and I would recommend you give it a whirl if you’re in the mood for some light entertainment. Carmen qualifies as one of the very few women or girls of color in action roles that we’ve been able to review and enjoy here at Heroine Content. Ingrid is also a treat. I appreciated the way the filmmakers respected her and the kids – when women and children are far too often dismissed.

By Heroine Content standards, it deserves props. Four stars.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

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