‘Spies in Disguise’ Movie Review: Tom Holland’s Christmas Present to Families

Spies in Disguise is the family film film of the holiday season. Sure, Frozen 2 is still out and Spies in Disguise won’t cut into Frozen 2’s take, but if parents can’t stand to go “Into the Unknown” again over Christmas, Spies in Disguise is a fun alternative with a good message.  Will Smith and Tom Holland don’t sing but it’s not that kind of movie. It all benefits Disney anyway now that they own Fox.

Tom Holland is back in Peter Parker mode for ‘Spies in Disguise’

Walter (Tom Holland) has always been an inventor. When he grows up he works for the agency that employs Lance Sterling (Will Smith), a childish caricature of a James Bond without the lisciviousness of Austin Powers. When bad guys frame Sterling, he hastily drinks Walter’s prototype formula which turns Sterling into a pigeon.

Lance Sterling (Will Smith) and Walter (Tom Holland) | Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

So there’s one gadget James Bond never had. James Bond had pigeons do double takes at his shenanigans, but no pigeon transformation formula, not even in a Roger Moore movie. Spies in Disguise balances a lot of things. It’s the odd couple buddy partnership between Walter and Sterling. It’s the Will Smith as a bird movie you never knew you needed. It’s also a positive story about finding more peaceful solutions than the traditional violence action movies sell.

Holland is doing an American accent. That’s probably how most of his young fans will recognize his voice anyway. Walter sounds like Peter Parker. Sterling sounds like Will Smith, who current kids may only know as the Genie in Aladdin

A James Bond movie with pigeons 

Who knew pigeons had 90 minutes worth of entertainment in them? For an unconventional story idea, Spies in Disguise really keeps the pigeon gimmick going. Sterling has to adapt to his pigeon biology. The real pigeons love Sterling which is cute and they all become memorable characters. 

Walter (Tom Holland) and Lance Sterling (Will Smith)
Walter (Tom Holland) and pigeon Lance Sterling (Will Smith) | Blue Sky Studios and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Even in full pigeon mode, Spies in Disguise feels like a James Bond movie. They go to Venice and Mexico, so it’s international even if it’s only animated internationally. There is a nice James Bondy title sequence too, although it’s set to more of a hip hop song than Bond ever used. 

‘Spies in Disguise’ is fun for all ages

There’s enough in Spies in Disguise to consistently make adults laugh, along with basic slapstick that works for all ages. Gadgets backfire enough for fun action scenes that aren’t too dangerous, and the fast action is impressively animated. Some jokes are so gleefully childish you won’t fully appreciate them until you’re an adult, like the banana or a Hydrogen Bond joke or a Tetris joke that any gamer can appreciate.

There is a lot of gunplay action just like a live-action James Bond movie. Nobody appears to die, but they are trying to kill each other. They’re not shooting paintballs. G.I. Joe was all about shooting guns too, so it’s not like there’s no history to it in animation. Rambo and Robocop had their own animated series once too.

Tom Holland and Will Smith: Spies in Disguise
L-R: Walter (Tom Holland) and Lance Sterling (Will Smith) | Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Most of the action is heightened to a slapstick level, so it plays as a background gag. When the Internal Affairs team seizes Walter’s house it’s played as absurd slapstick oblivious to the real foreground action. It’s a tricky balance between a loving homage to the kickass action films we love and an irreverent spoof of how absurd they are. Spies in Disguise usually walks that line, and it’s easy to forgive occasional oversteps.

The message is that Walter’s alternatives to guns work. Spies in Disguise takes sides between the peaceful solution and the action hero, but it still totally celebrates the violent action hero. 

Adults will certainly appreciate the signposts of the genre, but they may be lost on an audience not yet reared on Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies. Will they understand, or care, that Sterling is trying to capture an arms deal, or that Internal Affairs is investigating him? It’s like they plugged in the action movie formula but forgot that kids don’t know what either of those things are yet. 

Spies in Disguise pigeons
Walter’s pigeon friends in Spies in Disguise | Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Kids’ priorities will be on the real pigeons who make friends with Sterling while he’s transformed. They’re sure to be a hit as collectible merchandise, and probably spinoffs until Spies in Disguise 2 gives us Walter and Sterling’s next adventure.