Spy Kids 2; Stuart Little 2

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Stuart Little 2
Directed by Rob Minkoff

Quality-wise, kids' entertainment is as cyclical as anything; you go through years that deliver a couple of good movies (think of 1999, which brought Toy Story 2 and The Iron Giant, or 2001, which delivered Monsters, Inc. and Shrek). Other years are mostly terrible?and so far, this one is more terrible than most. A lot of the big releases aimed at kids, whatever their design merits, are basically a continuation of television by other means (The Powerpuff Girls Movie, Hey, Arnold! The Movie and The Crocodile Hunter). The Country Bears is creepy and boring, one heck of a combination. Disney's Lilo & Stitch had vibrant watercolor backgrounds and a nice mix of slapstick and warmth, but toward the end, it unfortunately felt the need to turn into a demolition derby. DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was the most original concept for an animated movie in ages?an epic about the political realities of Manifest Destiny, told through the eyes of a wild horse?but neither audiences nor critics really got it (a few of the critics hypocritically complained that it was too preachy and p.c.?a gripe they'd never make about a live-action Steven Spielberg historical movie).

So far, the best kids' movie is Stuart Little 2, which, like Toy Story 2, is less a traditional followup than an excuse to revisit, remake and in some ways deepen the original. The barely there plot has Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox) getting entangled with a little bird named Margalo (Melanie Griffith; no relation to the Margalo of the E.B. White book) who is in cahoots with a falcon and jewel thief (James Woods). It's mainly a device to send Stuart out into the world on a charmingly wild adventure, photographed mainly from mouse height. Director Rob Minkoff, who helmed the first movie and codirected The Lion King, pulls off major chase sequences and eye-popping effects, but he doesn't make a big deal over anything. And the droll tone is just about perfect.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams won't win any prizes for finesse, but in its own clever, rude, turbocharged way, it's rather fun. This sequel to Robert Rodriguez' 2001 action hit probably sets some kind of record for the most credits taken on one movie by one person. My presskit credits Rodriguez not just with producing, directing, editing and writing, but also with the production design, the score (with John Debney), the rerecording mix and the cinematography. I wish he'd subcontracted a few of these jobs to other people, because the dialogue sounded a bit muddy to me, and the image quality (unlike the first film, it was shot on high-definition video) is often poor. (To be fair, I saw a film print of the movie; digital video projection will look better.) But like the original, this one has a handmade feel that sets it apart from most Hollywood juggernauts. Like Attack of the Clones, it's a very expensive genre film pitched at children that feels defiantly personal. The tone says, "I made this for myself, my kids and their friends, and if you like it, that's great?but I'm not losing sleep over it." Good luck explaining the plot to anyone, including your kids. It doesn't really matter much; it's just a pretext for silly slapstick and wild action sequences, most of them pitched at the seven-to-10-year-old sensibility.

The first film had pint-sized super-spies Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) rescuing their kidnapped super-spy parents Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino). This one finds Carmen and Juni fully employed as spies at the government agency OSS, competing for attention and promotions against rivals Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment; the latter is Haley Joel Osment's kid sister, and looks so much like him it's spooky). The absurd opening setpiece has the four spies racing against the clock (and one another) to save the president's daughter, who's climbed to the top of a fearsome amusement park ride called the Juggler (it's right next door to a ride called the Vomiter). She's pilfered a device known as the Transmooker, which shuts down all electrical devices across the planet (or something like that). The device falls into enemy hands and finds its way onto the title island, which is populated by gene-spliced, pun-enhanced monsters (a spider monkey, a pig that can fly) and lorded over by a mad scientist named Romero (Steve Buscemi; I'm assuming the character's name is an homage to horror film pioneer George Romero). The junior agents pilot submarines, climb mountains, fall down volcanic shafts and do battle with henchmen known as Magna Men, so called because they fly around on hovering magnets, and have metal hats that allow the super-magnetized mothership, a retro-50s flying saucer, to snap them up at the touch of a button.

The adventure is supposed to belong to the kids alone, but the adults can't stay out of it for long; Gregorio and Ingrid hop in a super-submarine and go looking for their brood, and Ingrid's super-spy parents (purring tiger Ricardo Montalban and pop-eyed dame Holland Taylor) tag along, complaining the whole time that the young 'uns just can't do anything right.

While it's marred by a certain crazed, trashy quality?I could have done without the camel poop joke, even though it went over like gangbusters with the kids in the audience?Spy Kids 2 doesn't feel packaged or safe. It gives Antonio Banderas the license to be funny, and he is; his Gregorio is the most macho, self-serious, neurotic spy in movie history. Scene for scene, it maintains a slightly disreputable edge, and there are times when it actually seems to take its philosophical underpinnings seriously. (Romero, who's spent the past few years hiding from the monsters he made, muses, "Do you think God stays in heaven because he's afraid of what he's created?") A spotty script and an inability to define both the plot and the villain prevent the picture from being excellent, but in a kids' summer this weak, "fun" and "surprising" aren't bad adjectives to claim.


If your view of adult entertainment is shaped by faux-serious "documentaries" like HBO's G-String Divas, check out Stripped, a documentary by former exotic dancer (and New York Press contributor) Jill Morley that opens in New York on Aug. 9 at the Screening Room. Partly inspired by her stage play True Confessions of a Go-Go Girl, it establishes the adult entertainment world as a stratified realm, just like any other industry. The dancers who work at glitzy topless clubs can do pretty well, while the dancers who work at go-go joints don't do well at all?and they're all essentially an exploited class, contract labor without a contract (or clothes). Morley lets her subjects vent about fake breasts, sexism and the lack of medical and other benefits. All more or less admit that if they had it to do over again, they wouldn't go into stripping; they were poor and felt they had no other choice. It's tough, real stuff?and the ending is powerful.

The Screening Room, 54 Varick St. (Canal St.), 334-2100.

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