...watching in 3-D is annoying and watching in 2-D is pointless.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Several years ago I suggested to Warner Bros. that they might consider releasing their old 3-D movie "The House of Wax" in both 3-D and 2-D on flip sides of the same disc. It had been the most popular 3-D movie of all time, the DVD medium makes a good, clear medium for 3-D reproduction, and the disc case is handy for storing several pair of 3-D glasses. Noting, I'm sure, that the recommendation came from so esteemed a source, they thanked me and promptly ignored the idea. Which leads me to "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over." It's offered by Buena Vista in both 3-D and 2-D on a pair of discs, along with a few bonus items. Well, at least somebody's trying out the idea.

The 3-D gimmick, if not the movie, is fun for all of maybe five minutes. Unfortunately, the movie is fun for even less time. The problem is that the story line is thin. As in almost nonexistent. Whereas the first two "Spy Kids" movies were appealing because they were not only good fantasies, they involved family, this third installment for all intents and purposes bypasses the family angle altogether. There is a small reprieve at the end where all the characters from the previous movies come together, but it's much too little too late.

Instead, this is Juni's movie, and, frankly, eleven-year-old Daryl Sabara isn't up to carrying the whole picture. He's a cute kid, but he hasn't much screen presence. The plot involves the evil Toymaker creating a virtual-reality video game called "Game Over," with which he intends to capture the minds of children everywhere. The game is not just addictive, it's hypnotic. Sly Stallone plays the Toymaker with a mischievous glee that escapes almost everyone else in the cast, and it's the Toymaker's plan to control the world's youth in order to control the future of the world. Sort of like MTV. Well, it seems that Juni's sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega), at the behest of the government already tried to infiltrate the game by literally getting inside it, and then promptly disappeared. Juni, who has left the OSS agency to become a private eye, of all things, is persuaded to come back into the fold and rescue her.

Juni's mission is to play all the levels of the game, find Carmen (shades of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"), and stop the Toymaker's fiendish plot, all within twelve hours, or the Toymaker will take over the world. If any of this sounds familiar, maybe it's because writer-director Robert Rodriguez tells us the movie is based on a sci-fi idea he had kicking around in his head for years that he adapted for this "Spy Kids" segment. But apparently it wasn't so unique an idea, since the whole thing smacks not only of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?," but of "TRON," getting into the game and becoming a part of its workings; and "Escape from New York," getting into the game and rescuing the sister in a limited amount of time, right down to the watch Juni wears, ticking down the minutes; and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," getting Juni to undertake the adventure through the ploy of having to rescue a family loved one.

The first fifteen minutes of the movie set up the story's circumstances, and they are in 2-D. Once Juni enters the game, the audience is instructed to put on their 3-D glasses and most of the rest of the movie is in three dimensions. But at this point there isn't much movie anymore, just CGI special effects designed to show off the 3-D process. The glasses one has to wear are uncomfortable, one's eyes tire easily from the two differently colored lenses, and the 3-D effects grow wearisome within minutes. Then we wait while Juni fights his way through the various levels of the game in Mega races, Robo fights, lava fields, and other typical video-game devices. No story; no character development; no real heroes or villains, since the Toymaker hardly shows himself. Just Juni and the game and our eyes wearing out.

So where are Mom and Pop all this time? Who knows. As the father, Antonio Banderas is listed first in the credits, but he only makes a brief, token appearance at the end of the movie, along with Carla Gugino as the mother. In fact, Rodriguez tells us that these actors, along with the others who finally show up at the conclusion, weren't even together at the time of shooting; they were filmed separately and digitally composited. It makes as much sense as anything else in this film, since the kids were filmed mostly in a small room doing their acting in front of a blue screen (or light-green screen in this case).

Anyhow, Juni just sort of wanders around, while the special effects attempt to carry the show. Good thing for the special effects, too, because poor little Daryl Sabara is hardly a Sean Connery or Harrison Ford. He's not even an Antonio Banderas. So we get mainly computer-generated effects for eighty-four minutes. Maybe George Lucas would love it, I couldn't say, but I didn't care for it.

The only other characters of any significance in the picture are Grandpa, again played by Ricardo Montalban, encased in a superhero robotic body with only his head showing; and several other game players that Juni meets along the way. Not even Juni's sister emerges until near the end, but at sixteen years of age Alexa Vega is hardly a "kid" anymore, so maybe opting out was a good career move for her.

The picture closes with almost everyone who has ever appeared in a previous "Spy Kids" movie making quick appearances, but not for any particular reason except to remind viewers that this is, after all, a "Spy Kids" movie and that "family" must be included, even if it's only an afterthought. So we get the Mom and Pop, of course, plus Holland Taylor as Grandma, Mike Judge as Donnagon Giggles, Cheech Marin as Uncle Felix, Danny Trejo as Machete, Alan Cumming as Fagan Floop, Tony Shalhoub as Alexander Minion, Steve Buscemi as Romero, and Bill Paxton as Winky Dinks. New to the series (and included along the way) are Salma Hayek as Mrs. Giggles, George Clooney as the President, and Elijah Wood as "The Guy."

Nothing helps.

On the "Making-of" featurette quite a lot is made of the fact that this 3-D movie is not supposed to be like old 3-D movies, that this one is supposed to be technologically far more advanced. But by the look of things, "Spy Kids 3-D" is no different in appearance than the older 3-D films, except that it uses an abundance of CGI animation. The 3-D imagery is still fussy to look at, requiring a good deal of squinting even after you've readjusted your television for optimum viewing and then continuing to produce sporadic ghost images that can't be entirely eliminated.

I watched the film in its 3-D format and then watched a few minutes of the 2-D version. Believe me, the 2-D is far less taxing. At one point, the movie itself even spoofs the tiring effect of watching the 3-D process. Anyway, in regular 2-D the colors are bright and computer-game gaudy, the way they were in the last "Spy Kids" movie, and like the last movie the new one was shot digitally. Now, I have never been a big fan of digital photography, finding it adequate at best and blurry at worst, but at least "Spy Kids 2" and this one are relatively clear in 2-D. That doesn't make them the equal of the best print photography, however, and I wonder if this fact didn't lead to some of the three-dimensional issues I encountered. The first fifteen minutes of the 3-D version are in regular 2-D, as I've said, and then you're told to put on your glasses, at which point the hues in the 3-D portion of the movie turn from bright and colorful to dull and metallic, adding to the fatiguing overall perspective of the digital camera work. Fortunately, the transfer looks perfect, and no grain, jittery lines, or pixilation are evident.

It's not so fortunate that in order to watch the 3-D effects, you have to wear the 3-D glasses that come with the set because that's also a problem, especially if you're like me and already wear eyeglasses. I tried fitting the 3-D lenses over my glasses and that didn't work. I tried putting my glasses on over the 3-D glasses and that didn't work, either. I wound up cutting one of the cardboard 3-D frames and fitting it under my glasses, which worked as successfully as anything else I could think of. Still, I found the experience demanding on my eyes and had to periodically stop the film and take the 3-D lenses off.

So, was any of this 3-D business worth it? Not really. Not for me. The 3-D effects were definitely fun for a while, but the novelty quickly wore off. The result is that watching in 3-D is annoying and watching in 2-D is pointless. Kind of a losing situation.

One can hardly fault the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio except to say it hasn't a lot of low end. But the front stereo spread is exceptionally wide, the surrounds are used to advantage, the dynamics are quite wide, and the sound is exceptionally clean. So expect all of those eye-popping (and eye-wearying) 3-D illusions that are coming at you to sound like they're all around you, too.

This is an unusual two-disc DVD set in that each of the discs includes one version of the movie, one in 3-D and the other in 2-D, with a few bonus items on each disc, several of which are repeated on both discs. The feature commentary with director Robert Rodriguez, for instance, is included on both discs, as is "Robert Rodriguez's Ten-Minute Film School: How to Make Cool Home Movies" and three segments of "Alexa Vega in Concert," wherein the young star is shown singing various songs. A "Mega Race" set-top game is available in 3-D and 2-D versions on the two discs, but the twenty-one minute documentary featurette, "An adventure into the Third Dimension: The Making of Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," is only on disc two. The set concludes with several "Sneak Peeks" at other BV releases, twenty-nine scene selections, four pair of 3-D glasses, and an informational insert, all housed in a slim-line double keep case, which is further enclosed in a colorful slipcase. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, all in DD 5.1, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
"Spy Kids 3-D" takes us about as far from the sweet, family-friendly atmosphere of the first "Spy Kids" movies as possible into a cold, unfeeling video-game world filled with nothing but digitally produced special effects. If this doesn't bring the series to a dead stop, nothing will.


Film Value