Spies in Disguise is a family fun comedy that teaches us about teamwork and pigeons seeing their butts while eating breadcrumbs. It isn’t a new story, we have seen many a boastful high-class character turned into an animal, or royalty changing form to learn a lesson. This time around it is Lance Sterling (Will Smith) the best special agent spy in the world who unwillingly gets turned into a pigeon by the perceived worst gadgets agent in the world, Walter Beckett (Tom Holland).
I will say I was not truly on board with a highly regarded extremely skilled leading black character being turned into a pigeon for the majority of the film. In turn, leaving the white male character as the main protagonist…But I decided to keep an open mind because I love Tom Holland, and Will Smith’s comedic timing is everything. After tabling my reservations on the premise, I did enjoy myself. From the detailed animation to the classic funny sidekick animal with a weird quirk, and I’m not talking about Will Smith as a pigeon. We get some wonderful comedic fare in Lance’s “flock” the funky looking bird who just eats everything!
The big sidekick that does all the wrong things but manages to save the day. This flock ends up being the best spy partners as they work against the main villain, Killain (Ben Mendolson – Talos, Captain Marvel). Yes, Ben Mendolson is in this! There is a stellar cast and some unexpected characters as well. Rashida Jones plays an antagonist with her team of agents who believe Lance Sterling needs to be brought in for a crime I will not spoil. This team also includes our one and only Karen Gillan (Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy) as “Eyes” and…another one – DJ Khaled as “Ears,” that one had me doing a double-take.
We get a great balance of comedy and darkness in this movie, it does not hold back on the truth of evil intentions and the capabilities of real villains while also tackles issues of hardship and loss. The story is one of embracing your genius, even if it means everyone else thinks you are weird. Imagining new ways to fight crime and how to let your guard down, trust people and ask for help, because we are better together than apart. I came with my judgment glasses on and deservingly took them off, especially after speaking with the Directors, Troy Quane, and Nick Bruno about their intentions in storytelling and crafting this narrative.
Black Nerd Problems: It’s always a trip to see these characters in family films turn into animals, so why Will Smith and why a pigeon?
Troy Quane: Well first and foremost we wanted to make a spy movie. This movie is a lover of spy films, so we wanted to create our very own super spy agent someone who could stand up next to a James Bond, or a Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and be equal to those characters. Nick and I would discuss this and we kept going back to our heroes growing up, and Will Smith’s name kept coming up. He’s the perfect guy to stand up to those characters. So it really was a matter of finding that person, and moving it to Will he really loved the comedy of it. Despite his changing into a pigeon, it’s an action-adventure.
But as good of an action movie it is, its great storytelling and he loved the story under the story, which was in a world where we have a hard time working together – trusting each other, we’re strong and we can be brought together. Now the thing of turning him into a pigeon it really wasn’t just cuz this is an animated movie it plays well because of it, but really it was more thematic and character-driven. Lance Sterling is the world’s greatest spy he flies solo, this guy doesn’t work well with others he doesn’t trust other people.
He’s strong, he’s capable, so the idea of being able to strip all of that away in order to sort of make him dependent and needing to learn to trust other people was important. The idea of turning him into a pigeon was just that, took all that physicality away made him this sort of goofy small sort of perceptible weak character but through his adventure, Lance learns that in trusting other more similarly weak characters, he’s actually stronger than he was alone as a human. The idea of a pigeon is, they are mainly spy animals and also they are flock animals, by nature wanting to congregate and be together with others – this all works thematically so we took that idea into an animated movie.
BNP: So did you have to do a lot of research about pigeons when you were going into this?
Nick Bruno: Did we? Perhaps too much, listen do you want to hear some pigeon facts? I got the pigeon facts for you. Pigeons are in every major city around the world and no one pays any attention to them. They can fly, and they can fly up to 92.7 miles per hour. Because they can fly so fast they can see faster than the human eye can see. And then having your eyes on the side of your head allows you to see in almost up to 360-degree vision meaning a pigeon can see somebody sneaking up behind it, or as Lance says “ I can see your face and my butt at the same time.” They have amazing abilities and like Troy said, they survive well inside a flock.
BNP: We’ve been highly underestimating pigeons
NB: Oh yeah.
TQ: If we do nothing else with this movie it’ll be to change the mind of the audience of a pigeon as a proud majestic bird.
SHAKEN NOT STIRRED
BNP: What a amazing cast! Tom Holland, Will Smith, Rashida Jones…what was it like recording with them? Were they all in the same room together? Did they get to do recording sessions and get to play off each other?
TQ: It was amazing, you know they say never meet your heroes but that does not apply at all with our cast each and every one of them was spectacular. They were so much fun, they loved to play and improvise. And that was something we really look towards as Directors because animation is such a planned art form, like you have to build everything you don’t get anything for free. The only time you have spontaneity is with the actors. Unfortunately, none of them got to work together – with Will and Tom being two of the biggest movie stars at the moment we couldn’t even get them in conference half the time, so they met for the first time at the premiere.
But we were making a buddy comedy movie you know, the kind of buddy comedy movies we like, like “Trains, Planes and Automobiles”, very bantery quick-talking sort of dialogue. So we would in the recording room read to them, give them the lines and we would know where we want to scene to go – but we would let them roll and find new things. And we would take that material and go to the other one and read with them with that, and we would explore and say oh wait that was really cool and we’d go back and go back and they were very generous with their time and allowing us to have that working relationship. But I think we were able to get to a very natural banter.
BNP: That’s amazing!
NB: Yeah, we were very lucky to work with them. They’re all great storytellers as well you know, and when we would get together with people, it wasn’t just let’s do these lines you know. We would talk through stories, you know Will, Tom, Ben, Rashida were amazing story collaborators as well, and I feel like the story is better because of the work we did with everybody.
BNP: That is just a testament to their talent and your directing style, it is so seamless in the movie. I assumed they were just playing off each other and being able to riff, it was really great.
TQ: Well thank you, we are amazing.
[Laughter all around]
BNP: Talking about you all about and your directing style working as a team, I know you both worked on Ice Age in the past, but what was it like this time around? I feel like it did blend both of your styles very well, you know this family comedy but also there was this element of darkness in it that I enjoyed as well.
NB: Thank you!
TQ: Yeah, Nick and I hadn’t actually met each other until we sorta came onto this film you know for this movie. We had a friend who knew us both and said she thought we’d get along, and she was actually right. I mean its amazing when you find a partner that shares your sensibility and sense of comedy, what’s funny and what’s important thematically and story-wise and he [Nick Bruno] is really fun to be around. You know these movies take a really long time, like four and a half years.
Having a partner who has your back and someone you like spending that kind of time with, has been an amazing experience. It’s kind of like finding a long lost brother, so we’ve had a great time and you know we have a great crew back at Blue Sky. There’s 550 of the best artists in the world and anytime we were feeling a little overwhelmed, we knew we had a lot of shoulders over there to lift that weight and carry that through, and it’s been a sheer pleasure.
NB: It’s amazing how life has imitated art and we are better together than we are alone.
TQ: It’s really true. I like that you brought up the comedy and the darkness because that really was and always is a delicate balance storytelling wise. We really wanted it to be funny and have people laughing, but we wanted kids to know we wanted families – that there are things in this world that we need to overcome and sometimes it’s scary and sometimes we think we can’t possibly get past it, but we can you know – there’s a way, that was important to us.
NB: Yea it definitely was.
BNP: Yea it definitely came through. Talking about your team that you had these great illustrators and animators. You know the animation to me was so crisp from the beginning as Walter is disarming this apparatus, you know you could see the scratches on the lens and things like that, but then you also have this like cartoony style with the pigeon who’s like swallowing everything. Talk a little bit about those choices in animation.
TQ: One I just want to thank you for noticing, you know those things often go unnoticed. When we were looking at overall style one of the things that we really loved was watching some of the animated title sequences of the classic Bond films. There were graphics, they were sexy, they were stylized, and we looked for ways to get that into every frame of our film. So if you are looking at something like a small glass, very graphic simple shapes, but the design feels very rich its got a cool style to it everything had a swagger to the film.
So even when it came to our animation style we wanted it to feel like the life had a swagger that there’ some grounding in realism but there’s still a simplicity and a caricature to that as well. So if you look at a Lance Sterling, if you look at his anatomy he’s a martini glass. He’s got those wide broad shoulders and then he goes down to uh, skipping leg day with his legs as stems of the martini glass – right. So it was very interesting finding how that language can, not just look, but how it could move and we are very proud.
NB: And that little nuance of detail you were talking about is really great because we have tall ideas. I mean we turned a man into a pigeon, a ridiculous crazy really cartoony sort of idea. So it was important that we were grounded, and that world had a reality to – that so there was still a feel of consequence, it’s not like – oh we could just drop a couch on this guy and its no problem. We wanted it to feel like there was a reality around it, so that the most ridiculous thing was that man turning into a pigeon aspect.
SHOCKING. POSITIVELY SHOCKING
BNP: It was great with the main character getting bruises, and realistic bruises, rather than he just gets hit in the face with concrete and he’s totally fine, it was refreshing to see.
NB: Its a lot of thought and work when it comes to that.
TQ: It really really is, so it’s amazing you caught that detail, you know Walter has some amazing healing properties, we still ran him through the ringer and I think that’s part of the process.
Although it isn’t particularly a unique story, I cannot deny it is well-rounded family fun with a message – and truth be told Will Smith is not a pigeon for as long as I thought he might be. If nothing else: watching a pigeon try to drink out of a martini glass is pretty funny!
Directed by: Troy Quane, Nick Bruno
Produced by: Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Ben Mendelsohn, Karen Gillan, Rashida Jones, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
In Theaters Christmas 2019.