In Live and Let Die, a pigeon famously pulls off an unexpected double-take as the villain meets an outrageously over-the-top death at the hands of 007. Other than that, pigeons have been pretty thin on the ground in espionage movies – until now. In this bizarrely premised but often very funny animation, pigeons do the actual spying.
The hero of this latest effort from Blue Sky, the studio that behind the Ice Age and Rio franchises, is uber-cool superspy Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith). When he’s framed for the theft of a deadly drone, the only person he can turn to for help is disgraced scientist Walter (Tom Holland), a gadget maker who prefers non-lethal tactics. But when the bullish Lance is accidentally transformed into a pigeon – yes, really – by Walter’s experimental formula, they must work together to stop bad guy Killiam (Ben Mendelsohn) from targeting every intelligence operative in the world.
The plot is both overly familiar (drones, spy databases) and thoroughly silly (birds), but its looseness allows the charismatic cast to chuck in some solid jokes. Spies in Disguise is far funnier than I expected, delivering original riffs on spy clichés and pigeon behaviour (be warned that some of the gags may cause actual gagging). It also offers a progressive look at covert ops, suggesting that they create a vicious cycle of violence and only worsen the problems they seek to address. The non-aggressive glitter bombs that Walter creates to break this cycle may not work in the real world but they’re a positive message for a children’s film.