Whatever rough-hewn, gee-whiz charm "Spy Kids" offered last year is lost in "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams."
In its place is a slick, bombastic sense of desperation.
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez again wears several hats (including writer, director, cinematographer and production designer) but they don't seem to fit quite as well this time.
Rodriguez seems to be trying too hard to cram in too much - more gadgets, more characters, more noise, more color. But bigger, brighter and faster isn't necessarily better.
The fun of the original movie - the surprise hit of last summer, which grossed more than $110 million - was that it was small and sweet; Rodriguez made the effects look good, and he did it for cheap. Kids could ooh and ahh at the visual tricks, while adults could laugh at jokes that weren't dumbed-down for them.
Here, everything looks two-dimensional and cartoonish, digitized and stripped of life. Kids may still enjoy it, though, purely as a sensory overload - though the ones at a recent screening mostly sat mute and motionless.
But occasionally a cool gadget comes along, such as a mechanical pet insect that can shoot surveillance video and tie a bow tie. And as Carmen and Juni, the spy kids of the title, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara continue to bounce off each other easily, and bicker with brother-and-sister authenticity.
Also returning are Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as their secret agent parents, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez. Carmen and Juni, who learned that their mom and dad are spies in the original, have become junior spies themselves.
The unnecessarily complicated plot follows Carmen and Juni as they track down the dreaded Transmooker Device, which can shut down all electricity on Earth.
The gizmo is on a volcanic island, where mad scientist Romero (Steve Buscemi) has concocted a line of Harryhausen-style hybrid animals (like a bull frog that's half bull, half frog) which have grown so large and scary, even their creator fears them.
The spy agency's new head, Donnagon Giggles ("Beavis and Butt-head" creator Mike Judge), wants the Transmooker so he can rule the world, and sends his own spy kids, Gary (Matt O'Leary) and Gerti (Emily Osment, Haley Joel's sister), to the island to nab it before the Cortezes can get to it.
But Juni and Carmen's James Bond-style electronic toys don't work on the island, so they're forced to rely on their brains and basic footwork to save the day.
So is "Spy Kids 2" an indictment of kids' tendency toward sloth in this age of Internet surfing and video games? A cautionary tale about the danger of cloning?
It's neither. It's a sequel that was rushed out barely a year after the original, an easy second round of boffo box office, and another opportunity for Rodriguez to let his imagination run wild.
The 34-year-old Texan is admittedly a big kid himself, and he clearly had a blast making this movie, even if audiences may not have as much fun sitting through it.
Some of the supporting actors look bored, too, including Ricardo Montalban, who's forced to sit in a flying wheelchair as Carmen and Juni's grandfather, and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, who are on screen so briefly, you'll miss them if you blink.
"Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams," a Dimension Films release, is rated PG for action sequences and brief rude humor. Running time: 100 minutes. Two stars (out of four).
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