- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Like its popular predecessor, "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" is undeniably playful and imaginative. It also reflects an admirable sort of cottage industry economy, since writer-director-editor-production designer-digital photographer Robert Rodriguez, who also shares credits for visual effects and musical score, insists on working close to home in Austin, Texas.

Having cooked up fanciful notions with collaborators in his back yard, so to speak, he uses an obscure computer graphics shop in Quebec for the indispensable finishing touches.

While spreading the work around, this regionalism also allows a "Spy Kids" budget to underbid the industry norm by a cool $50 million to $80 million or so.

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Mr. Rodriguez can shoot about three features for the price of a typical Hollywood fantasy that needs trick shots and strange critters. But then Mr. Rodriguez is the guy who broke into the business with a deadpan chase melodrama that cost a few thousand dollars to shoot, "El Mariachi." (A couple hundred thousand were later spent to make it presentable as a theatrical attraction.)

While very much in favor of the working methods associated with Mr. Rodriguez, I don't much care for the particular whimsies that govern the "Spy Kids" premise itself. From the outset, it appears that Mr. Rodriguez has shortchanged a potentially swell casting team by subordinating the spy parents, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino), to their so-called precocious adolescent offspring, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara).

The catch is that the adults are far more photogenic and potentially satisfying as virtuoso secret agents. Mr. Rodriguez has a glamorous new team of marital sleuths in his grasp but lacks a pretext appropriate for taking optimum advantage of their sexy and humorous potential.

In the prototype, Gregorio and Ingrid seemed to be in semiretirement, and the untested children gamely set out to rescue them from an abductor.

Mr. Rodriguez attempts the reverse dilemma in "Lost Dreams." Although actively involved in a junior division, Level 2, of OSS, the espionage agency that employs their parents, Carmen and Juni are sent on a devious mission that leaves them stranded on a tropical island.

They need to dodge relays of menacing lab creatures, manufactured by a bumbling, castaway scientist, Romero (Steve Buscemi), who intended to create toy miniatures but ended up hiding from several oversized and aggressive specimens.

Now the parents are obliged to race to the children's rescue. Delaying tactics prevent a prompt reunion and united front against perils in the tradition of Conan Doyle's "Lost World" or Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island." One distraction is the entrance of a set of grandparents, played by Ricardo Montalban and Holland Taylor. Since the idea of Mr. Montalban as father to Mr. Banderas seems a commendable brainstorm, I was bewildered by the announcement that, no, these are Miss Gugino's parents. So who is Mr. Rodriguez keeping in reserve for the missing paternal side: Rita Moreno and Billy Crystal in his Fernando Lamas disguise?

Not that I would object, but the population of the "Spy Kids" movies seems to be growing without adequate rewards for any particular participant. Carmen and Juni are given rivals named Gary and Gertie Giggles, played by Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment (the look-alike kid sister of Haley Joel), envisioned as semicutthroat and rather more confident in front of the camera than either Cortez sibling.

Their father, called Donnagan Giggles, has engineered a promotion to OSS chief at the expense of Gregorio. This sneak is played without sneaky distinction or zest by one of Mr. Rodriguez's cronies, Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis & Butthead" and writer-director of the witty "Office Space."

So the island gets a bit congested with rivals by the time a finale is arranged. Moreover, it's difficult to feel that Mr. Rodriguez is a master of fine-tuning when deciding which perils should outrank others and whether it should be humans vs. genetic beasts or a mixture of the species when matching up for fight sequences.

A lot of stuff gets tossed around in the course of a "Spy Kids" adventure, but the priorities always seem disenchanting. Mr. Buscemi doesn't get much of a showcase by emerging as a mild-mannered mad scientist. Bill Paxton makes inside-joke appearances at the start and end of the movie that look more expendable than droll. None of the cliffhanging situations looks especially credible or alarming.

If anything, the most alarming element is probably unintentional: the glorification of wet-behind-the-ears brats as superheroes.

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