Special agent Vladimir is the Secret Service’s top spy, but he’s not so good at obeying orders. Following a reckless mission, he’s sent to a remote off-shore platform to guard a top-secret cargo… with only timid rookie Hector for company. But when a gang of mysterious figures break into the platform and steal the consignment, the pair must embark on a thrilling undercover mission.
Spy-sees? Spee-shees? Spy-shees? I’m still not sure how to say it, my pronunciation lightbulb moments flickering as I spend way to long speaking it out loud in all its forms when I really should get back to pondering that full-stop at the end of EMMA.
An attractive and frantic animation for children, that title is as confusing as its overly-layered plot.
Mainly, Spycies is a warning for kids about what the future holds.
As sparring spies Vladimir and Hector fight over TV spoilers and favourite actresses, you could see it as preparing them for the world of Twitter when they get older.
Oh yes, and climate change. And animal extinctions! Though kids nowadays seem to know more about those topics than we do.
Thankfully, Spycies‘ unpreachy tone and twisty reveals should reduce the amount of “we already knew that” shrugging from its intended audience, though it will probably be replaced by some “what was that all about” shrugging instead, as the story veers between the basic and the overly-complex.
Luckily the animation is sharp and atmospheric; colours are nuanced. It steers clear of eye-watering kiddie-friendly primary colours, and instead we get cobbles and bars (above), a grey oil rig surrounded by stormy, rolling waves, a sparkling hospital and a forgotten building of rusting girders hung with lush green vines and flowers running riot.
The animals themselves – Vladimir the cool yet cocky cat, and Hector the IT-savvy rat, plus various anthropomorphic friends – are vivid and personable, as you’d expect from the animation team behind Secret Life of Pets, Minions and Despicable Me.
What holds Spycies back is its uneven storytelling, a tendency towards rambling, and jokes and attitudes that sometimes feel dated.
Spycies is a joint Chinese-French production and some aspects will jar with British audiences. There’s a trip to a mental health ward, with a chicken in a straightjacket, that feels old and unfunny. Odd jokes about cross-species relationships fall flat. And while rabbit doctor Chloe (Karen Strassman) is always seen as capable, gorgeous actress and bee Mia (Salt Saffioti) is told to remain to the side during a dangerous manoeuvre so she stays safe.
Likewise, the mid-credits scene is groanworthy.
Vladimir is a spy, though one who clearly believes in hiding in plain sight. Brash and arrogant, his hubris naturally leads to collateral damage when he chases a ne’er-do-well tiger through the city on a motorbike, in an exhilarating pursuit that children should love.
His boss temporarily banishes him to that sea platform to guard a rare chemical compound called radiocite. Hector is already living there, surrounded by pizza boxes, whiling away the hours watching Mia in a popular TV drama.
The two don’t get on. Where Vladimir (Kirk Thornton) is rude, bullying and condescending, Hector (Dino Andrade) is sweet and friendly.
But intruders breach the rig’s security, stealing that valuable cargo before escaping. Back on dry land Vladimir and Hector go undercover at their local hospital to track down the culprits, with Mia tagging along to help her prepare for a role in an upcoming spy movie (refreshingly, that as as self-referential as this movie gets).
The film doesn’t flinch from big questions, though they do become muddled. A white rhino, one of a handful left in the world, is attacked with an icy beam by a shadowy figure known as the Demon of the Cold.
Climate change in this world has already led to the extinction of other animal species, with man’s (or rather animals’) attempts to make things better only making things worse.
There’s also a side look at cosmetic surgery and the pressures actresses are under to alter their appearance, when Mia books in for an antennae reduction to get a role even though it will mean she won’t be able to communicate with her “sister bees” anymore. It’s an interesting line but also a distraction (and better aimed at older children).
It’s quite witty though, with some amusing background jokes. There is also some enjoyable retro tech, with Pong references, an old flying motorbike, and evidence that can only be viewed on an an client VHS player.
The action scenes are well done, with an impressive final fight scene.
Spycies isn’t top-notch family fare, and children watching it at home may give up when it gets too complex. It’s agreeable enough if you’re looking for half-term entertainment this week though, looks great and despite its earnest eco flag waving the only hector-ing you’ll find is from the rat.
There are too many specific messages for us as a species, though if you want to simplify matters its final take-home is the vital one: we really, really need to save the bees.
And if you’re watching this at the cinema, don’t forget to put your Fruitshoot bottles and popcorn cartons in the recycling on your way out.
Kaleidoscope Entertainment presents Spycies in UK cinemas nationwide 14 February
Watch the Spycies trailer now: