Will Smith stars as ultra-suave secret agent Lance Sterling, who is less of a James Bond parody and more a repurposing of Smith’s own natural charisma. Yes, he’s basically playing himself which sounds gimmicky (especially given Gemini Man recently showed that too much of him can be a bad thing). However, in practice it’s an effortlessly charming performance that proves exactly why Smith’s star power has endured for decades. When Smith as Sterling makes a quip or pulls off an absurd stunt, it’s simply fun to watch. Likewise, it’s hardly surprising that he’s just as capable of selling the story’s emotional beats. This is far from the first film to feature the moral of opening oneself up to others, but Smith’s earnest delivery makes it feel fresh.
Although Smith was my personal favourite among the cast, co-lead Tom Holland is just as enjoyable and provides most of the film’s heart. As the young, brilliant but ostracised inventor Walter Beckett, Holland’s upbeat performance beautifully captures the notion of following your own path regardless of what other people think (naturally, Walter has almost the same voice as Holland’s version of Peter Parker). He’s smart enough to perceive his unpopularity but remains confident in changing minds on his own terms, which feels like a valuable lesson for younger viewers. Finally, any discussion of the cast would not be complete without highlighting Ben Mendelsohn as the enigmatic villain Killian. Mendelsohn expertly pivots between returning one-liners and sneering through wicked monologues; although the character’s motivation is underwritten and left until too late, he’s literally always the perfect actor for playing a bad guy.
While I’ve largely focused on the impressive voicework anchoring SPIES IN DISGUISE, the quirky plot, creativity and humour are just as successful and should help it stand out from other animated fare. After Killian frames Sterling for stealing a high-tech drone and forces him to go on the run, Walter reveals he’s been working on a revolutionary new method for ‘disappearing’. It turns Sterling into a pigeon, complete with tiny bowtie pattern on his feathers, and enormous stylised eyebrows. As the pair work to clear Sterling’s name, several of Walter’s other wacky inventions are shown, including Serious String, Inflatable Hugs, and Kitty Glitter (for distracting people, obviously). In a particularly effective running gag, that bonkers final example has a 100% success rate. Overall, I was pleased to find the jokes weren’t written to pander exclusively to kids’ taste. In fact, others such as Walter’s obsession with Korean soap operas (and the film’s obsession with the word ‘cloaca’) are genuinely inspired.
By the way, if anything stood out in the list of Walter’s gadgets I provided above, it should be the non-lethal functionality. In an unexpected yet impressive move, SPIES IN DISGUISE is unafraid to advocate for non-violent conflict resolution without becoming a lecture. Rather, its story serves as a persuasive case study by explaining how lateral thinking can provide alternatives to violence. I felt that by making this a defining feature of Walter’s character and using it to propel the film, the argument never felt superfluous or tiresome. It’s just another example of how SPIES IN DISGUISE thinks differently, and a little bit smarter than your average animated blockbuster. Despite initially being unsure what to expect, I found SPIES IN DISGUISE to be a consistently surprising and joyous experience. Between the vivid animation, stellar cast and clever writing, there’s something for everyone to love here.