This Kids, Just All Right

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Family films. That genre usually means either animated features or something about a dog. So it was nice to find a film — heck, a franchise — with kids who admired their parents and uttered no curse ruder than "Oh, shiitake mushrooms!"

We come to praise Spy Kids and to bury it. Robert Rodriguez says his third installment is the final one. That's a shame, because the first two were smart, genial family outings, and because the finale is a bit off — less a detour than a pothole.

In the first Spy Kids we met the superspies (Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino), who married, retired, had two kids, then went back to work, this time letting Carmen (Alexa Vega) and little bro Juni (Daryl Sabara) help Dad and Mom save the world. At the end, Carmen intoned the film's family-values homily: "Spywork, that's easy. Keeping a family together, that's difficult. And that's a mission worth fighting for."

With kids who were recognizably kids and a hero dad with a goofy (i.e., human) streak, the movies underlined Rodriguez's sense of family: both his actual brood (his wife produces, his cousin Danny Trejo co-stars) and the local filmmaking community. (Mike Judge and Richard Linklater, two dons of the Austin movie Mafia, acted in the series.)

But what Rodriguez really wants to do is entertain, using sight gags, computer sorcery, fast farce and funny town names (San Diablo!). A pinwheel of inexhaustible ingenuity, he had the kids in the first film pursued by an army of giant thumbs ("I snap my fingers," says a nutty TV clown, "and my fingers snap you"), and in the second one swordfighting a pirate band of Ray Harryhausen skeletons. Here were terrific adventures that paid homage to old films while they extended the art.

Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over has a frenzy of invention too, as Juni must win a video game to... I forget — save the world? But its visual thrills are chilly and wearying compared with the other films' quirky humanity. It's not a megamovie; it's a Sega movie. The parents just about disappear. (Has any top-billed star spent less time onscreen than Banderas does here?) As for the 3-D glasses: now you know why that '50s fad ended so quickly.

Game Over may be this one-man film studio's autobiography: a glimpse into the virtual heart of the computer nerd who spun so much Spy Kids fun. Now if he could just crawl out of his labyrinth and give us a brighter, warmer Spy Kids 4. In 2-D, please.