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This Week in Genre History: Spy Kids saved the world (and we met the Thumb Thumbs)
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
To begin this new series, we'll be shining a spotlight on Spy Kids, which hit theaters on March 30, 2001. The movie, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, starred Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara as Carmen and Juni, the precocious children of famed former spies Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino). But when their parents are kidnapped by the evil talk-show host Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), who wants to take over the world, the kids will have to rescue them.
Along the way, they'll learn what their mom and dad used to do for a living — and get involved in the family business by utilizing some cool spy gadgets themselves.
Spy Kids featured a treasure trove of clever cameos from the likes of Teri Hatcher, Cheech Marin, Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo, Robert Patrick, Mike Judge, Tony Shalhoub, and even fellow Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, but it's highlighted by the breakout performances from its two young stars. Vega and Sabara had been working in film and television, but Spy Kids helped make their name. (He had been in a few episodes of Murphy Brown. She was in the short-lived Alfred Molina sitcom Ladies Man.)
And like any great James Bond flick, the film had a top-notch villain, with Cumming playing a hammily good bad guy in Floop. Perhaps the character’s most memorable contribution to the franchise was his introduction of the Thumb Thumbs, his henchmen who (as you might imagine) were robots whose heads, arms, and legs are all thumbs.
"Thumb Thumbs are something I invented when I was 13, and I won my first art contest," Rodriguez once said. "It’s so cool going back to ideas I had as a kid and seeing them come to computer-generated life."
WHY WAS IT A BIG DEAL AT THE TIME?
When Rodriguez hatched the idea for Spy Kids, he was trying to make the transition from super-low-budget mastermind (El Mariachi) to a more mainstream filmmaker. Ironically, inspiration came in the midst of one of his career lowlights, the 1995 commercial dud Four Rooms.
"I had Antonio there and Tamlyn Tomita playing his wife and these two kids who were dressed in tuxedos because the film was set on New Year’s Eve," he later recalled. “I thought, 'Wow, those kids look like little James Bonds!' And right there I thought of what would eventually become Spy Kids.”
Six years later — and with his subsequent films From Dusk till Dawn and The Faculty failing to fully establish his box-office bona fides — Spy Kids was his largest release to date, with his future prospects tied to the movie’s performance.
WHAT WAS THE IMPACT?
Spy Kids was a smash, claiming the No. 1 spot at the box office for three straight weekends and becoming, at that time, one of the biggest March debuts ever. Not only was it Rodriguez’s first major hit, but it also spurred three successful sequels. (The first two, 2002's Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams and 2003's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, followed hot on the heels of the original.) One of his generation's giddiest pure-genre filmmakers — his good buddy Quentin Tarantino always wanted to be more of an auteur — Rodriguez suddenly could lay claim to his own franchise, which perfectly reflected his boyish sensibility at its most charming.
But Spy Kids didn't just boost the filmmaker’s profile. The movie also helped usher in an era of Hollywood kid-centric action flicks, like Agent Cody Banks and Sky High, which encouraged younger viewers to see themselves as miniature James Bonds and superheroes.
Soon, young people wouldn’t just be the good guys — they'd be ruling the box office. The first Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, would arrive in theaters later that same year. And then, perhaps the greatest of all kid crimefighters, Spider-Man, came to the big screen in May 2002. Suddenly, Carmen and Juni were in good company.
HAS IT HELD UP?
Rodriguez diehards probably prefer El Mariachi or From Dusk Till Dawn or Sin City, but it's very possible that a whole new generation of fans love him because of Spy Kids and its sequels. A father of five, the filmmaker has always understood what children love about movies — how they seem to be big, exciting receptacles for endless imagination and adventure.
As Vega later recalled, Rodriguez never seemed like a stuffy old guy, which threw her when they first met. As she said in 2013, "I looked at him and I was like, 'You can’t be the director.' And he was like, 'I’m the director!' And I was like, ‘But, you’re cool!’ He had a bandana and a really cool watch on, and there was just no way that this guy was a director."
No surprise, then, that Spy Kids remains a movie that parents and kids can enjoy together for its sweetness and sense of fun. Plus, it's far less achingly hip than so many family flicks. (If anything, the film has the same wiseacre, in-joke pleasure that made The Muppet Movie so iconic.) Rodriguez’s style of exuberant action and family-friendly entertainment is now practically the template for Pixar. (Picture a live-action Incredibles and you'd be pretty close to a Robert Rodriguez picture.) And the recent success of the Jumanji films, in which huge stars like Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black are basically playing kids, suggests that Spy Kids' DNA is still all over Hollywood.
Funny enough, Rodriguez tried to duplicate his own formula for another kids’ action movie, 2005's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, but it couldn’t recapture the same magic. The original's precise alchemy — its likable performances, colorful production design, clever gadgets — will always make it special.
"The idea for [Spy Kids] was to make a movie that feels like a little kid wrote it and directed it and shot it," Rodriguez said back in 2001. Mission accomplished.