In a glassy-eyed season of franchise bloat and blockbusters-by-committee, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams pulls off a dual identity as pre-sold power sequel and auteurist playground. Writer, director, editor, cinematographer, production designer, and co-composer Robert Rodriguez brings a more-is-more credo to both his résumé and his mise-en-scène in this FAO Schwarz spyware palace, densely tricked out in gizmos and hoochamacallits. Secret-agent siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) run riot in jet-fueled Hover-Shoes (!) and a shape-shifting, amphibious Dragon Spy Ship (!!) to track down the fabled Transmooker Device, which can cause a pan-global electricity outage with the press of a button and is hence the most coveted accessory among the world-domination set. The fantasy merch is miniaturized or SuperSized at giddy random and everything’s Crayola-bright, even once the kids hit the titular island and the power goes out.
For this second go-round, Rodriguez sees double everywhere he looks. Carmen and Juni jockey for position with a rival brother-sister team, Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matt O’Leary and Emily Osment). Old-school wiles and wisdom, still dispensed by foxy Mom and Dad (Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas), reach back another generation with the arrival of Grandma and Grandpa (Holland Taylor and international man of mystery Ricardo Montalban). The first movie’s nemesis, kiddie-show host Floop (Alan Cumming), gets a cameo shout-out, but mad-scientist duties are largely fulfilled by Romero (Steve Buscemi), who likewise spends his waking hours ensconced in a seaside Neverland Valley and building the perfect mutant beast. That is, until his hybridized Noah’s Ark (including pigs that fly and a Slizzard) grows out of his control.
Rodriguez can’t quite match the Floop-derived Kroftsmanship of part one, while the pop-up CGI and warp-speed editing sometimes conjure the narcotic fog of an afternoon in front of Nick Jr. But the movie never disappears under the wheels of its own machinery: The poised Vega and pleasingly phlegmatic Sabara are resolutely uncute performers, and the reach-out-and-touch-it gadgetry carries a homey scent of proactive nostalgia. Spy Kids 2 is an island of lost Circuit Cities as stocked by Ray Harryhausen and the Mummy brain trust (dig those menacing, rattling skeletons!), though the only commodity Rodriguez hawks is family togetherness.
If Spy Kids 2 summons a young technophile’s Valhalla, then Signs appears to have been conceived and written by an actual child, especially once the crop-crunching terrorist aliens get to conquering Earth on a Pennsylvania farm. Sitting through the last reel (spoiler alert!) is significantly less charming than listening to a four-year-old with a taste for exaggeration recount his Halloween trip to the Haunted House. The aliens were tall and green, and poison gas came out of their claws, and they tried to get into this family’s basement but they couldn’t, and then everyone fell asleep, and then when they woke up all the aliens had been defeated, but there was still one left, and Joaquin Phoenix beat it with a bat! I’m not making this up. This shit made the cover of Newsweek.
Not long ago, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan made the scary and elegant The Sixth Sense, a ghost story whose weakness for metaphysical goop and rug-pulling gimmickry suggested that he should not direct his own scripts—a hypothesis promptly proven by the embarrassing Unbreakable. Here the “Next Spielberg” piles on Mel Gibson as a lapsed man of faith whom the whole Rockwellian town calls “Father,” a cornfield of dreams where failed baseball player Phoenix wanders in search of redemptive triumph, and God help us, an affirmation of religious faith as a weapon of war. Not a whole lot makes sense in Signs except, of course, the cosmos: The Almighty watches over everyone, there are no coincidences, and Everything Happens for a Reason.
More unwieldy family business: In The Château, two Americans—a lackadaisical white guy (Paul Rudd) and his arrogant black brother (Romany Malco)—journey to provincial France seeking their claim on a ramshackle inheritance. Jesse Peretz’s skinny, disheveled DV feature is primally funny so long as Rudd’s bemused monoglot is permitted to molest and torture the French language as a means of ingratiating himself with said château’s staff (including potential love interest Sylvie Testud, who embodied a more overtly intransigent servant in Murderous Maids earlier this year). The raw art of the malapropism has rarely been so extensively honored, but the increasingly strident, slapstick-smacked movie runs out of steam once the culture shock wears off.