When the trailer for Blue Sky Studios’ animated movie Spies in Disguise was first released, people online shared it in disbelief, mocking the twist that the suave, James Bond-esque spy voiced by Will Smith found himself transformed into … a pigeon. The premise of Spies in Disguise (based extremely loosely on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short Pigeon: Impossible, which, for the record, does not feature a human spy turning into a pigeon) is indeed silly, but it’s not that much sillier than the premises of Blue Sky’s other movies, including the mega-successful (and not at all scientifically accurate) Ice Age franchise. The problem with Spies in Disguise is not so much that it has a dumb premise, but that it doesn’t seem to know what to do with that premise, throwing together a bunch of dopey jokes, spy-movie clichés and pigeon facts and hoping they all somehow fit together.
They don’t, but that doesn’t stop the movie from frantically trying. After a prologue featuring child-prodigy inventor Walter Beckett bonding with his mom, the movie shifts into a mildly amusing spy parody opening, featuring Smith’s absurdly competent Lance Sterling taking on a whole building full of yakuza assassins by himself, although he fails to stop cybernetically enhanced bad guy Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) from stealing an all-important doomsday device of some sort (this is a remarkably violent movie for PG-rated children’s fare). The credits sequence that follows is a creative, stylish take on the typical Bond title presentation, with abstract images representing the ridiculous elements of the story to come.
It’s pretty much all downhill from there, though, both for the characters and for the movie. Lance returns to agency headquarters to discover that he’s been branded a traitor, with relentless agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) determined to bring him in. Walter (Tom Holland), toiling away in the farthest reaches of the gadgetry department, gets fired when he tries to pitch Lance his latest invention, and the two only team up because Lance has nowhere else to turn. Walter says he’s developed a revolutionary method for keeping spies from being found, and Lance needs to disappear while he clears his name. It turns out that Walter’s secret formula changes people into pigeons (who are ubiquitous and ignored), and Lance is less than thrilled about his metamorphosis into a talking avian pest.
Obviously Lance will eventually come around to trusting and relying on Walter, and to a lesser extent appreciating the intelligence and beauty of pigeons. The emotional arc is as familiar as the spy story that involves Killian stealing one of the most common espionage-movie plot devices, the list of every secret agent’s identity. The details are unimportant, as long as they provide context for the chaotic set pieces in which pigeon-Lance attempts to do human things as a bird, or attempts to do bird things and gets frustrated. Beyond the basic message about teamwork, Spies in Disguise also delivers a somewhat muddled anti-violence message, as all of Walter’s inventions are designed to take the brutality out of spy work. Even as Walter pushes for glitter bombs and inflatable protective suits, though, the movie ruthlessly dispatches as many henchmen as a Mission: Impossible entry.
Although now owned by Disney (thanks to its purchase of 20th Century Fox), Blue Sky has always been artistic runner-up to the likes of Pixar, Laika and DreamWorks, and the animation in Spies in Disguise is pleasant but never dazzling or especially memorable. The humor is mostly based on slapstick and gross-outs, some of which is questionably appropriate for children (there’s a Fifty Shades of Grey joke, for some reason), all of which quickly grows tiresome. The plot of the original short film (a pigeon gets caught in a spy’s nuclear briefcase and wreaks havoc) likely couldn’t have sustained a feature, but the internet was probably right to mercilessly tear apart the result of this misguided alternate approach.