For multi-tasking moviemaker Robert Rodriguez, family matters. So much so that Rodriguez’s "Spy Kids" movies have become a legitimate franchise. Why shouldn’t they? 2001’s "Spy Kids" retooled every James Bond cliché to a modest theatrical success and a home video phenomenon. 2002’s "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" respectfully channeled "Jason And The Argonauts’" Dynamation gee-wizardry through Rodriguez’s all-digital camera. Ipso facto, 2003’s "Spy Kids 3D: Game Over" is "Tron" Redux, filtered through the corniest movie gimmick of them all: 3D.
The Cortez family seems to be slowly disbanding. Mom & Dad (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) have their own mission, teenage daughter Carmen (Alexa Vegas) has re-upped with the mysterious OSS spy organization and son Juni (Daryl Sabara) considers himself retired, concentrating on the important jobs like rescuing cats from trees. When the President (George Clooney, kicking off one of MANY alumni cameos from previous Robert Rodriguez movies) informs Juni that Carmen has gone missing during an assignment, he realizes what Michael Corleone knew all along: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Turns out, Carmen’s mind is lost inside a virtual game known as "Game Over," created by the mysterious and sinister Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone) to enslave the world’s youth. Juni must enter the game, retrieve Carmen and exit by successfully negotiating the game’s five playing levels. Donning 3D glasses, he enters the cyber-arena, encountering pogo-frogs, lava monsters, rock-‘em-sock-‘em robots and fellow cyber warriors. However, he must not release the Toymaker into our world because…well, fill in the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it hyperbole here.
Of all the three "Spy Kids" films, this one seems most targeted for the kids. From the opening scene with previous villain Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) explaining when kids should put on their 3D glasses, everything about "SK3D" plays to the 8-13 year old set. Even so, I found this latest franchise installment very enjoyable mostly because it respects its audience. Furthermore, one of the best conceits of the movie is how Juni enlists his grandfather Valentin (Ricardo Montalban) inside the game, giving the wheelchair-bound character (and actor in real life) the ability to run, jump and interact super heroically with his grandson. Montalban still has mighty-fine acting chops and his gentle wisdom for Juni provides a rock-solid emotional anchor to the story.
Actually, "Spy Kids 3D" deftly employs two celluloid attention-grabbers: third dimension and Sylvester Stallone. Stallone’s presence as the Toymaker and his three virtual "alter-egos" (an alarmist clad in German WWI uniform, a balding scientist and grey-haired hippie) plugs into as much movie lore as the paper red/blue 3D glasses. Rodriguez’s digital trickery transforms Rocky and Rambo into the four Marx Brothers, chewing just enough of the virtual scenery that kids get a fleeting jolt at his safe villainy and adults identify with Stallone having grown a little grayer and wiser about his – and maybe our -- place in today’s world. Reaching? OK, back to the DVD.
Both the theatrical 3D version and a standard 2D version are available on each of the edition’s two discs, presented in 1.85 anamorphic widescreen. Rodriguez utilized the "anaglyph" 3D system for the film, which involves glasses with red film over the left eye and blue film assigned to the right eye. Even though anaglyph 3D has some drawbacks (color distorts due to the red/blue differential, potential "ghost" outlines around objects), Rodriguez explained in interviews that he used the process because it’s easier to exhibit theatrically.
Four sets of 3D glasses are included with the DVD. Disc One also features a tutorial section to help fine tune TVs. The "3D Set-Up" section guides viewers (presumably adults) in adjusting the chroma and tint on their displays to maximize the dimensional effect. Despite the previously mentioned shortcomings, the 3D effect worked better than anticipated. The images exhibited decent depth perception and the digital "comin’-at-ya" effects have a fair degree of impact. Close-ups and foreground elements looked completely sharp and detailed. However, I never could never completely remove the "ghosting" from background objects and, despite my repeated futzing with the chroma and tint, the 3D looked better "synched" in some scenes than in others.
On the other hand, the 2D presentation on disc Two could not be better. What’s lost in depth perception, we gain five-fold with an exceptionally colorful, detail-rich picture. Hues – reds, green, blues, and yellows – are just intense. In fact, I enjoyed watching this version more, not only because it’s easier on the eyes (a BIG plus), but so much more of Rodriguez’s visual designs come through. For example, in Chapter 14 ("Mega Racer"), the detail of the background crowd is far more precise in the 2D than in 3D, primarily due to the ghosting issue.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also takes full advantage of the discrete audio palette. This is a very aggressive audio mix with excellent dynamic range, a wide front soundstage, an abundance of directional rear channel effects and balanced, not overcooked, LFE enhancement. It also sounds like the audio was recorded at a higher line level (similar to the "Lord of the Rings" DVDs), so you might want to lower the home theater volume when starting. The disc’s menus are also presented in 5.1 audio with lots of surround activity as well.
Each disc shares the same menus, disc One in 3D and disc Two in 2D, according to the feature presentation format. While they offer the same menu highlights, they don’t share the same extras. Thus, both discs list "Sneak Peeks" on the menu, but they reside on disc Two with a disclaimer on disc One. For the record, disc One houses the 3D feature presentation, Robert Rodriguez’s feature-length audio commentary, Rodriguez’s "Ten Minute Film School with How to Make Cool Home Movies," "Alexa Vega in Concert" and the 3D version of "Mega Race." Disc Two contains the 2D feature, three "making-of" featurettes and documentaries, "Alexa Vega In Concert" and "Alexa Vega: Making Trax," "Ten Minute Film School," the 2D "Mega Race" game and the trailers disguised as "Sneak Peeks."
The audio commentary by Robert Rodriguez runs the entire film and he’s chock-a-block with insights, good humor and lots of enthusiasm. He jumps around a lot but he alludes to "Willy Wonka," "Escape From New York," Peter Sellers, star cameos and unrealized story moments (a scripted scene with Montalban, Sean Connery and Roger Moore that never materialized) as breathlessly as comments about shooting digitally, actors working in a completely green environment and juggling the editing of "Once Upon A Time In Mexico."
The "Ten Minute Film School with How to Make Cool Home Movies" is exactly that: a featurette with Rodriguez giving filmmaking insights in just under ten minutes. Subtitled "Dream Screen," he explains how the live action footage would be integrated with the CGI. Rodriguez really values this method of filmmaking because "it forces the filmmaker to be creative" and "allows the actors to focus completely on their performance." By the end of this section, I have to agree. Watching Rodriguez achieve his goals with a minimal set and props is something. Towards the end, he sneaks in tips on making better home movies with personal examples. (Hint: it’s not what you see, but what you hear.)
"The Making of ‘Spy Kids 3-D’" runs approximately twenty-two minutes, exactly the length without commercials of a half-hour TV special intended for broadcast. Clips, behind the scenes b-roll and interviews with every member (literally) of the large cast cover everything from the history of 3D movies, the stars’ participation in the "Spy Kids" trilogy to Rodriguez’s familial movie-making style. Nothing new or particularly insightful here, just the standard "gosh, it’s great to be here" type comments. Basically, an HBO "First Look" EPK stretched to program length.
Lasting only one minute, "Alexa Vega: Making Trax" documents Alexa working on and recording the title song run during the final credits. Presented in non-anamorphic letterbox video and stereo surround (not 5.1, interestingly) "Alexa Vega in Concert" culls three live performances from the outdoor world premiere party in Austin, Texas: "Game Over," "Isle of Dreams" (from "Spy Kids 2") and "Heart Drive," performed with co-star Bobby Edner ("Francis"). Each song is chapter marked or can be played sequentially.
The "Mega Race" set-top game comes in 2D and 3D flavors with stereo surround audio. Daryl-as-Juni briefly narrates how to play the game using the DVD player remote and then we’re off on an interactive version of the race featured in the film (with a nod to "Road Warrior," per Rodriguez). Either I’m getting older or my reflexes aren’t what they used to be because I had a dickens of a time getting to the next level. Icons pop up telling the player which way to veer and if you crash, computer graphics show Juni taking a spill with a number on-screen counting down you’re his – and our -- "lives." Kids will love it; parents might find it a bit noisy.
Interactivity also gets employed in the "Surfing and Stunts Piece" section. Using the "Angle" button on the remote allows viewers to toggle between storyboards, principal photography, animatics (rough computer renderings) and final composite footage from the "Lava Mountain" sequence. "The Effects of the Game" is a five minute montage basically covering the same thematic ground as "Surfing" – principal photography vs. final composite -- but with snippets of several scenes rather than concentrating on just one. "Big Dink, Little Dink" is a quick, three minute job about Bill Paxton ("Dinky Winks") introducing his son James ("Little Dink") into the "Spy Kids" family.
The "Sneak Peeks" section, which mercifully is not at the beginning of a Disney DVD, gives home video targeted trailers for "Spy Kids" and "Spy Kids 2," as well as the upcoming home video releases for "Brother Bear" and "Haunted Mansion." A theatrical trailer for the upcoming "Ella Enchanted" (a la "Shrek," a revisionist live action fairy tale) and promos for the "Spy Kids" video game and CD-Rom cover the merchandising end. All trailers are presented in 5.1 audio with "Ella Enchanted" in non-anamorphic letterbox.
"Spy Kids 3D: Game Over" isn’t the best in the series but carries the same characteristics as every Robert Rodriguez flick: technical innovation, playful camera work and a sheer love of twisting film. He also knows how to properly stuff a DVD, too. BTW, stick around during the end credits.