Film Editor Samuel Zucca finds enough to praise despite the flaws in Chinese animation, Spycies
Watching Spycies challenges your assumptions of what to expect from a kid’s animated film. I’ve written about this before, and the genre is expanding so much that most assumptions are thankfully being thrown away. But a core component of the children’s animation genre is still quickfire humour, and this is not what Spycies excels at. Many animated films have been inversions or parodies of the spy/super villain genre, and you only have to look at Bolt or Despicable Me to scratch the surface. Spycies embraces rather than parodies the spy genre however. It has its funny moments, but ultimately, it’s more in the vein of Bond or Mission Impossible than Austen Powers.
The marketing for Spycies has been very strange, with a mostly forgettable trailer, and a very misjudged English title that makes it seem like an inferior counterpart to Blue Sky’s Spies in Disguise. The animation is sleek and intuitive, but the film has probably gone under the radar due to character designs that don’t particularly stand out. The film focuses on Vladimir, a tall, brooding feline secret agent who doesn’t like to play by the rules, and his sidekick Hector, an unsettling looking ginger-haired rat who’s a layabout but also an expert hacker. The designs are generic, not in the sense of poorly made, but just unable to stand out amongst a sea of ubiquitous Minions, Buzz Lightyears, and Sonic the Hedgehogs that pepper our screens. The duo are also something we see frequently in animation; the stoic, serious protagonist and his annoying yet endearing sidekick. Think Shrek and Donkey, or more recently Guy and Sam in Netflix’s Green Eggs and Ham series. The inability to stand out may be a flaw in terms of marketing, but what that hides is a chiselled and competent film.
Starting with the animation, it has a camera-like quality, not quite the photo realism of Weathering With You or Toy Story 4, but in the sense of imitating a physical camera. There are shaky-cam shots, POV’s and ocean spray hitting the lens, which add to the action-movie feel, while also indulging in complex long takes that would not be possible with a real camera. The film opens with a chase scene that cuts quickly and closely – almost reminiscent of the opening to Quantum of Solace. There’s a sprightliness and an energy to the movement which makes it feel like a lot of care was put into this. Another indicator of the tone of the film is Vladimir’s boss, a large elephant always filmed from an intimidating low-angle, who trumpets threateningly whenever things don’t go his way. The noise he makes is gargantuan compared to the calmer voices of Vladimir and Hector and would probably have given me nightmares if my subconscious wasn’t otherwise occupied.
There are still jokes in Spycies, and even if some of them seem oddly translated, there is plenty of visual comedy going on. There’s a recurring gag of the elephant-boss’s assistant, a frog, who never speaks yet is continuously coming up with innovative ways to stop papers from falling off the desk when his boss trumpets. There’s also a snake character who transforms into a Chinese dragon whenever he drinks coffee – a detail used to great effect in the plot. There are some elements that do seem a bit random, for instance a recurring gag of two hippos who fall in love as a result of Vladimir’s antics in the first scene. We track their relationship as they appear throughout the film, ending with a shot of their baby scan near the end. It seems unclear what the purpose of this motif is however, as their relationship is never properly fleshed out. I do think that if the jokes were maybe phrased differently, many of them would have landed better, as they have a vocabulary that seems at odds with the target audience of the film.
Spycies works just fine as a more serious spy film than an out and out comedy however. The action is fun, and the character dynamic is cliched yet fun and believable. There are a few moments that deviate, but what’s interesting about the film is that most of it takes place in a hospital, as Vladimir and Hector are on the search for a stolen radioactive isotope. This adds an interesting perspective that most action and spy films wouldn’t tend to address, and that’s the human (or in this case, rhino) cost of the action. There’s a plot point where a rhino is hit by an ice laser beam, which is followed by a detailed scene in which he is operated on in order to prevent cold blood from reaching his heart. It may seem a simple scene but taking care to focus on the characters who usually become collateral damage is something that few films take the effort to do. There’s also a foregrounding of climate change in the narrative. In Spycies, the animals are just animals rather than a metaphor for humans, and that comes along with all the issues that wild animals face on this planet today, with climate catastrophe bringing many of them close to extinction.
Spycies in many ways is a victim of its own marketing and English title, but there is plenty of engaging and important stuff going on. Its genre is much less defined than most children’s animation, but that allows it to do something different. It creates an anthropomorphic espionage flick that like its lead Vladimir, is brooding on the outside, but deep down has a heart.
Spycies is available on DVD from June 8th, 2020.
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