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Kids Save the World! 

*Spy Kids (PG)
Dimension Films

I don't know anything about the personal life of Robert Rodriguez, writer and director of Spy Kids, but I'd bet you a dozen electrostatic gumballs that he's somebody's parent. I base my supposition on the fact that Spy Kids is clever and funny and kid-friendly and one of the few kid movies I've seen in ages that both you and your offspring can understand and enjoy. It has the feeling of stories that my husband Malcolm tells my son when Malcolm is sick to death of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The stories are full of wry references to popular culture, to life before children; they have nice moral endings and are entertaining for the whole bunch of us.

In the case of Spy Kids, the movie is a great combination of True Lies and PeeWee's Playhouse. Two glamorous spies, Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas) have retired to marry and have children. Their kids, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) have no idea of their parents' former profession until the parents are kidnapped. With no one else to help, it is up to the kids to rescue their parents and save humanity in the process.

There are tons to like throughout this movie. The bad guys are really bad but not too scary, the slapstick humor is funny without being mean, the sets are wonderful fun-house sendups of children's television. The movie never once talks down to the kids in the audience (or the parents either, for that matter), and it is full of terrific Inspector Gadget-like gizmos. There isn't a gun in the whole dang movie, praise the Lord and pass the silly string.

The very smart and silly story is aided by very good acting on the part of both the adult and kid actors. Antonio Banderas, in particular, does a wonderful job of being both glamorous and campy at the same time, switching back and forth between over-the-top spy to nice-guy parent in a flash. He has no troubles making fun of his hot Latin stereotype, and the result just permeates the entire film. Since this is a kids' movie, the real heat that exists between Banderas and Carla Gugino can't be exploited, but it's there all the same. The two kids are also very fine, especially young Daryl Sabara whose slightly pudgy whininess is nicely transformed as he grows into his role as master spy. Everyone seems to be having fun, including Cheech Marin as the kids' somewhat inept protector, and tough-guy Danny Trejo as Uncle Machete. (And, incidentally, there's a fair dose of Latino pride woven throughout.)

"Family movies" of the last few years have generally been pretty lame, full of mean-spirited goofiness, appalling gender stereotypes, and dumbed-down humor. What a relief to be treated to the silly, smart, well-conceived Spy Kids, just the kind of story you'd hope to spin yourself.

(Rated PG, probably for a little scariness. Probably best for kids five and over.)

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