(by Dustin Putman
2001's "Spy Kids," 2002's "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams," and 2003's "Spy Kids 3: Game Over" came and went in just over two years' time, a time capsule of a makeshift franchise that started with a savvy idea—a spy movie with kids!—and a heartfelt tale about family before its filmmaker, writer-director Robert Rodriguez (2010's "Machete"), became preoccupied with the fancy toys at his disposal. Increasingly colorful and decreasingly human, the series wore out its welcome just as its two leads, Alexa Vega (2008's "Repo! The Genetic Opera") and Daryl Sabara (2007's "Halloween"), were outgrowing their pint-sized roles. Eight years later, Vega and Sabara are back, now grown-up spies passing the torch in the shockingly well-meaning, even valuable, "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World." Apparently Rodriguez was aware that he'd gradually lost sight of the bigger picture because he's corrected that here with a story that emphasizes the importance of family over indifference and bombast. There are still a bunch of cool gadgets on display and older viewers will have to put up with about four fart jokes too many, but the film's core themes involving valuing the time you have with loved ones is a noble sentiment. Article continues below
When Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba) had her first child, she decided to hang up her top-secret spy shoes to be a more available mother to her baby daughter and eight-year-old stepkids Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook). One year later, she's still struggling for acceptance from rebellious prankster Rebecca when a maniacal former foe known as the Time Keeper returns, using his Armageddon Device to begin speeding up time. With the planet headed for disaster if he's not stopped, Marissa leaps back into action and is forced to reveal her true profession to her family. Taken into protection at OSS Headquarters where they meet Marissa's niece Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega), Rebecca and Cecil soon grow restless. Not about to sit by idly, they leap into action to help with Marissa's mission. As it turns out, Rebecca unknowingly holds the key to returning time to its normal speed: the Chronos Sapphire, a family heirloom of Marissa's family that she has recently passed down to her.
Let's make things clear right now: "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" is juvenile, rough around the edges, and frequently clumsy. The one-liners and double-entendres range from the groan-inducing (when Rebecca's head ends up close to Cecil's backside, he calls her, "Butthead") to the acceptably cute ("I'm gonna bust his clocks!" Marissa says about the Time Keeper). In targeting the young demographic, director Robert Rodriguez is preoccupied with bathroom humor to a wearying degree. He also introduces a talking robot dog named Argonaut (voice of Ricky Gervais) who watches over the kids and slings usually unfunny British-accented barbs with every syllable he utters. When Cecil remarks at one point during a greenscreen/CGI-heavy action scene, "It's like a big video game," many may nod their head in agreement.
And yet...and yet...the film is so likably innocuous and unsuspectingly wise that it works better than it should. The idea of time being sped up isn't taken full advantage of—Rodriguez doesn't bother to logistically tackle how people would react and what it would do to the world if day and night were coming at rapidly accelerating speeds—but the idea behind such a threat is quite imaginative. Better still is Rodriguez's use of this conflict to talk to children in an honest, open, but age-appropriate way about life, death, and never taking for granted the time you have with the people you care about. A family film version of the Jigsaw Killer from "Saw," the Time Keeper holds in him a forlorn backstory about the loss of his father that informs why he believes others too often take the time they have for granted. His identity, kept a secret for a long while is plainly obvious from frame one (though it won't be given away here). What is gratifying is that he is developed and treated as a misguided lost soul rather than a one-note evil villain. The decision to give Cecil a hearing aid that he uses but not make a big deal about it is another welcome aside that should make young children, particularly the hearing-impaired and disabled, feel good about themselves. Kudos to that. Also a nice message is Rebecca's and Cecil's discovery that Marissa is a pretty great person to have in their corner, and won't be replacing their late mother anytime soon. When OSS president Danger D'Amo (Jeremy Piven) hears the kids belaboring Marissa's stepmom status, he quite eloquently tells them, "Don't get caught up in that baloney. If she takes the time to love you, you love her back."
With several diverting, non-violent action scenes (including one literally inside a giant clock) interspersed between actual attention to character interactions—there's even some further drama rustled up when Marissa's husband Wilbur (Joel McHale), the host of a spy hunting show modeled after "Ghost Hunters," feels betrayed after learning she's been keeping him in the dark about her past—"Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" is more than just a shallow romp through special effects like the last two "Spy Kids" movies were. Reverting back to the charms of the original and then possibly slightly surpassing it, director Robert Rodriguez proves to have put thought and care into developing this new story and making it about more than squeezing extra dollars out of a long-in-the-tooth series. As new spy kids Rebecca and Cecil, Rowan Blanchard (2010's "The Back-Up Plan") and newcomer Mason Cook are unpolished but endearing, while Jessica Alba (2010's "Little Fockers"), Joel McHale (2009's "The Informant!"), the aforementioned Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, and an unexpectedly touching Jeremy Piven (2009's "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard") capably fill out the ensemble. It's not a certainty that adults walking into "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" won't roll their eyes on occasion at the spare cornball moment, but they should appreciate the heart that it wears on its sleeve. In its own eager-to-please way, the film is cheerful and valiant.