20 years ago, Robert Rodriguez made the strangest sci-fi sequel of the early 2000s
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore — that’s probably a good thing.
The early 2000s marked a unique moment in cinema history, especially when it came to kids’ entertainment. Most movies of the era are haunted by haphazard CGI easily trounced by today’s most mediocre of toothpaste commercials. As a result, it's easy to get swept away in the nostalgia of the era's most earnest efforts. One unlikely example? 2002’s Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, the most underrated installment of the Spy Kids franchise.
Fresh off the wild success of 2001’s Spy Kids, director/writer Robert Rodriguez wasted no time delivering a follow-up. Just one year later, most of the original cast returned, with Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara reprising their slightly aged-up roles as Carmen and Juni Cortez. They were now fully-realized spies working for the newly-formed kids division of the Organization of Super Spies (OSS).
One of the major benefits of making a Spy Kids sequel so soon after the original was Rodriguez's ability to continue the story while these young actors were still young. And unlike the first film, The Island of Lost Dreams is a pure, standalone adventure. No need for weighty origin stories or setting up the kids to be believable, pint-sized agents. Plus, Rodriguez had the good sense to avoid setting up a third film, possibly because he envisioned an episodic approach from the get-go.
Spy Kids 2 kicks off with Carmen and Juni comfortably saving the President's daughter from an amusement park ride run amok, while also deftly introducing two wrinkles to the plot: rival spy kids Gary and Gerti Giggles (played by Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment, respectively). What follows is a “more of everything” Spy Kids movie. More action, more gags, more runtime.
The actual premise of The Island of Lost Dreams is embarrassingly incoherent. It's almost charming, really. The plot device and villainous machinations that drive Carmen and Juni to this nightmare island will even make young kids scratch their heads at the myriad logical inconsistencies. But you’re not watching for the plot. And despite its messy setup, Spy Kids 2 manages to tap into a decent conflict for its heroes.
Despite being the original spy kids, Carmen and Juni aren't top of their class. Instead, they are constantly one-upped by their fresh-faced frenemies, one of whom Carmen harbors a crush for. It's a smart way to continue the characters’ development from the previous movie, in which they stepped up to save their experienced spy parents from a ridiculous, world-conquering scheme in a striking-for-the-time Latine pop culture pastiche.
This time, the Spy Kids are up against better versions of themselves. Gary and Gertie are basically a future reboot staring them in the face. Smoother, better gadgets, and even better hair. Sure, we have no idea why they have to be on this island fighting hybrid animal creatures with Steve Buscemi, but at least we know why they want to be here. They proved themselves to their parents, and now they want to do the same to their peers.
Speaking of the parents, they are once again played by Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino, and they do take a sizable backseat, though understandably so. They have to make room for the grandparents, played by Ricardo Montalbán and Holland Taylor, who get their final act frenzy of fun against the movie's aggressively bland bad guy. Though the film's original marketing purported it to be more of a "spy family" set up, it really is a blockbuster devoted to Carmen and Juni.
Nothing in Spy Kids 2 could ever be confused for serious or pretentious cinema — one scene literally has the characters riding on top of a magnet, while another has them hearing each others' thoughts — which makes it all the more remarkable that Steve Buscemi essentially pauses the movie to deliver a jarringly profound aside that would make any sci-fi auteur director blush. The words and delivery of this quote are quietly astounding for the movie it's in, as the context refers to a troubled scientist whose lab experiments have turned against him and now roam the island as free, but dangerous animals.
“Do you think God stays in heaven because he, too, lives in fear of what he's created here on Earth?”
I'm not sure why Robert Rodriguez, or whoever might've come up with this line, decided this was the time and place to seed a crisis of faith in the hearts of kids everywhere, but we have no choice but to applaud his audacity.
As mentioned, the visual effects in Spy Kids 2 are atrocious and off-putting, even for 2002, the same year that birthed the live-action Scooby Doo movie. Kids at the time, myself included, likely didn't notice or care. But watching as an adult, the uncanny valley on display is actually so bad and so painfully distant from anything believable that it takes on the surrealist, otherworldly quality it's ironically going for. Most of the film's gags and production design behave in a similar fashion, with the Nickelodeon-esque sets and color palette coming off as practically alien to anyone watching in 2022.
At a brisk 100 minutes, The Island of Lost Dreams is one of our most vivacious, yet absolutely unhinged time capsules of this century's first decade. Down to Alexa Vega's in-character live-concert Latina pop number ending the film as bombastically as it started. Robert Rodriguez, Hollywood's self-titled troublemaker, certainly had a dream with this series, and at least with Spy Kids 2, he had yet to see it turn into an IP nightmare.