Between the sprawling MCU, countless remakes and franchises, and even video game movies, it feels like Hollywood’s obsession with existing IP has sucked all the creative air out of the movie business. But original films like “Nope” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” have boasted strong box office numbers this year, igniting conversation and motivating moviegoers back into theaters. But with the highest-grossing films still overwhelmingly based on existing IP, it’s all the more refreshing when Hollywood takes a chance on an original story, especially when it comes to the usual slam dunk kids’ movies.
To that end, the snappy spy comedy “Secret Headquarters” is a welcome addition to the canon, sure to stick out for its smart jokes and lighthearted action. Starring Owen Wilson and directed by “Catfish” duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, “Secret Headquarters” feels perfectly calibrated to fly under the radar of Hollywood’s typical risk aversion. (Wild that an original kids’ comedy with an A-lister is an outlier, but such is the state of movies in 2022.)
Fast-paced and heartfelt, “Secret Headquarters” assumes its young audience has a basic cultural literacy without shoving in clumsy social media references that often feel like dad jokes (though Reddit does get a shoutout). With a PG-rated humor that parents can enjoy too, “Secret Headquarters” feels like the movie equivalent of the fun uncle who speaks to you like an adult, but also drives a mean Mario Kart.
The movie begins with a family camping trip gone awry, as a flying explosion sends Jack (Wilson) into the woods and away from his wife and young son. Along with a mysterious man in tactical gear (Jesse Williams), he discovers a UAP crash. When a glowing orb flies into his hands and identifies him as The Guardian, it changes the course of his life.
Jumping ten years later, the once-playful father is estranged from his now-14-year-old son Charlie (Walker Scobell), who dreads spending his birthday weekend with his dad. Without knowing his true identity, Charlie worships The Guardian, who has become an internationally renowned superhero. When Jack runs off on yet another “work emergency,” Charlie fake calls his mom and instead invites his best friend Berger (“Good Boys” star Keith L. Williams) over for a “rager,” despite not knowing what that means. Berger shows up with brainy Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon) and Charlie’s longtime crush Maya (Momona Tamada), interrupting Charlie’s ballad-filled moping session.
It’s not too long before the motley crew discovers a secret elevator that leads them down to The Guardian’s lair, a gadget-filled bunker that could give both James Bond and Batman a run for their money. Among the treasures, they find a jetpack, a portable portal, and a souped up lime green vintage VW van. When the kids take a joyride in the Guardian-mobile, they light up the radar operated by evil corporate overlord Ansel Algorn (Michael Peña) and his lackey (Williams). In no time, the mercenaries have descended on the house fully armed, thinking they have found The Guardian.
As the action commences, it’s revealed that Algorn is searching for The Source, the glowing red orb that chose Jack as its Guardian. Placing his hand on the ball, Charlie sees visions of all the death and destruction that could be unleashed if the Source falls into the wrong hands. Equipped with the full force of The Guardian’s cutting edge technology, the kids mount a plan to stymie Algorn and his muscle. Like a cross between “Home Alone” and “Spy Kids,” each funny character brings their own special sauce to the adventure.
Blending a teenage girl’s frivolity with math whiz skills, Lizzie gets some of the funnier lines. A Britney Spears reference is followed with, “Hasn’t she been through enough?” and she defends Jack’s choice of accessory for his magic suit with: “I actually think fanny packs are really having a moment right now.”
The well-timed one liners and casual asides abound, all credit to the script, which was written by Schulman and Joost along with Josh Koenigsberg. Scobell is charismatic and natural as the film’s boyish lead, but the other kids each have their charms and no one feels like an afterthought. Peña is particularly funny as the evil Algorn, playing up the physical comedy with Wilson in their silly final battle. All in all, “Secret Headquarters” makes for a very entertaining ride for kids and adults. It may not become a franchise, but perhaps it should. Hollywood, are you listening?
“Secret Headquarters” starts streaming on Paramount+ on Friday, August 12.