After dipping back into the big screen world via a series of increasingly effects-laden outings — from the smash Netflix hit “Bright” to the far less successful de-aging bonanza “Gemini Man,” and even an amusing dalliance as a hybrid Disney sidekick — Will Smith is closing out the decade with one last offbeat offering. This time, he’s a pigeon. Well, he’s a world-famous spy turned into a pigeon. Based on the cleverly titled short film “Pigeon: Impossible,” Nick Bruno and Troy Quane’s directorial debut mixes up spy films tropes, silly humor, and a surprising number of anti-drone warfare messages into an amiable, if forgettable animated outing. And, yes, for the majority of its running time, Smith is stuck in the body of a quite charming pigeon.
Lance Sterling (voiced by Smith) is the world’s greatest spy, a fun fact he positively relishes and is always thrilled to show off, both to his foes and big-time fans. (It doesn’t stand to reason that the world’s best undercover agent would be known to the entire world by name, but this is a film that hinges on so much suspension of disbelief, you’ve got to forgive these hiccups, lest you lose the entire plot.) After a solo mission goes oddly awry, capped off with a vaguely nefarious, robot-armed baddie (appropriately voiced by Ben Mendelsohn) making off with a terrifying killer drone and pinning the entire thing on Lance, the world-class super-agent is forced to go on the run. His only hope: the nutty egghead (and blatant “Q” knockoff) Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), whom Lance has just fired for his off-kilter ideas about how governmental agencies should actually use their power.
With a target audience of kiddos, “Spies in Disguise” naturally attempts to pack in a number of big! ethical! ideas! to add some meat to is animated mayhem, and Walter serves as their primary delivery system. An early flashback to his childhood reveals Walter to be a smarty-pants with some charming ideas about how to save the world. Those ideas haven’t endeared him to his peers — he’s a weirdo, through and through — but his cop mom (voiced by Rachel Brosnahan) sure loves him, even when he’s covering their house in a glitter bomb meant to function as a tool for disarming baddies. Walter’s mother is, of course, long dead by the time we meet him as an adult, but the weirdness she loved about him has evolved, and despite being employed by a somewhat shadowy agency, Walter is obsessed with leaning into pacifism and kindness as a means to combat bad stuff.
That’s not Lance’s style. A one-man band — many, many times, Lance tells the world he “flies solo” — who adores blowing things up, shooting the big guns, and leaving the clean up for someone else, being kicked out of the agency is bad enough, but being left with only Walter is worse. Bent on getting his good name back, Lance goes to Walter because the sweet geek has promised him some wild new technology that can allow Lance to literally disappear. It’s a great idea for a spy, but it’s less expected coming from Walter, who mainly traffics in glitter and kittens, super-tough Silly String and cushy inflatable balls. He also happens to have an emotional support pigeon, who kindly lends a feather to his body-changing “disappearing” formula. That’s the formula that Lance accidentally drinks, not quite knowing what Walter’s idea of spy anonymity really looks likes (read: feathered).
Kudos to the entire “Spies in Disguise” team for allowing Lance’s inevitable transformation into plucky spy pigeon to be so nutso, an eye-popping bit of body horror that could help accidentally inoculate some of the film’s youngest audience members into the wild world of David Cronenberg. Not so much a fish-out-of-water story, rather a man-into-a-pigeon tale, “Spies in Disguise” has a heck of a time playing up the obvious weirdness of sticking a smooth-talking spy into the body of a pigeon (that Lance’s pigeon form features a tiny feather marking of his signature bowtie sums up much of the film’s charm: incredibly silly, impossibly sweet). Soon enough, he and Walter, plus emotional support pigeon Lovie, are on their way to take down drone-stealing evil-doer Killian in a globe-trotting adventure cribbed from any number of more serious spy features.
Produced by the team at Blue Sky — Bruno and Quane previously collaborated on the animation shingle’s “Ice Age” features and its recent “Peanuts” movie — “Spies in Disguise” is rendered in colorful, zippy style. Most amusing, however, is how much their characters look like their real-life counterparts, and the film allows its big stars to turn in animated performances you can envision them acting out in real life. Smith’s natural charisma and big-talking bluster is a good fit for Lance, and his recognizable physicality shines through even when he’s in pigeon form (it’s easy to imagine regular Will Smith, not pigeon Will Smith reacting to Holland’s hare-brained schemes). No one is disappearing into the work here, from Rashida Jones to Karen Gillan and even DJ Khaled, all dispatched as the Internal Affairs crew hot on Lance’s trail. (It’s oddly refreshing, though slightly disappointing that Reba McEntire makes off with such a delightful turn as the head of the agency, a role she could easily do in non-animated form, too.)
Inevitably, Lance learns some big lessons about loving yourself (even as a pigeon) and getting hip to the likelihood that drone-based warfare is a bad idea. Heady ideas for any audience, but certainly good ones for the youngsters who will also be charmed by the film’s goofy humor (fine, yes, adults will, too). While the beats are familiar and even a film about animated pigeons can’t quite break out of the tropes that have long defined the spy film genre, it’s the kind of sweetly demented late-December diversion that should entertain plenty of holiday-weary families. Will Smith as a pigeon? Sure, but it’s those ideas about making the world a better place that are the ones that really fly.
20th Century Fox will release “Spies in Disguise” in theaters on Wednesday, December 25.