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Things Only Adults Notice In The Spy Kids Movies

Spy movies tend to be R-rated, but that hasn't stopped generations of kids from fantasizing about life as a secret agent. Plenty of creators have tried to tap into this market, but none have done it better than Robert Rodriguez, creator of the "Spy Kids" series. The title says it all: In these movies, kids get to be the heroes of thrilling adventures even James Bond would be jealous of. Beginning with the first movie, 2001's "Spy Kids," and continuing through three sequels and an animated series, the "Spy Kids" story follows second-generation spies Carmen and Juni Cortez as they fight kiddie-show hosts with dreams of world domination, monster-populated lost islands, and killer video games. 

"Spy Kids" is a gleefully surreal mash-up of everything kids find exciting. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the first movie, "​​You can imagine Robert Rodriguez ... grinning as he dreamed this stuff up." But there's plenty here for adults, too — in fact, the "Spy Kids" saga is positively packed with jokes, references, and details that fly right over little ones' heads. If you haven't seen these movies since you were a kid yourself, you only got half the story. What's hiding in the other half? We're glad you asked. These are the things only adults notice in the "Spy Kids" movies.

Spy Kids is what would happen if a kid made a kids' movie

Best known for hyperviolent movies like "Sin City" and "From Dusk Till Dawn," Robert Rodriguez might seem like a strange choice to direct a kids' movie. But in reality, he's just the man for the job. Rodriguez made those other movies by tapping into everything he was obsessed with as a teenager — all he had to do to keep things PG was reach back a few years further.

This process resulted in something unique: The "Spy Kids" movies feel like they could have made been by actual kids. They don't just have cool spy gadgets — the gadgets look like literal toys, boasting bright colors, soft curves, and plasticky finishes. Many of them operate on pure kid logic as well: A communicator watch works by folding out a flip phone, just like a child living in the pre-Apple Watch age would imagine.

This kid-centric design goes beyond gadgetry. The "Spy Kids" world is full of the sort of weird critters kids doodle in their notebooks, especially the Thumb Thumbs. In fact, Rodriguez actually did dream up the Thumb Thumbs at the age of 13 (via Creative Screenwriting). OSS headquarters is shaped like a giant, impractical "OSS." The kids' division looks like a playground, while the adults' is full of towering platforms. An adult might call this impossibly impractical, but "Spy Kids" knows that imagination trumps pragmatism when it comes to kids' entertainment.

The cast is packed with big names

In an effort to appeal to kids and the adults buying their tickets, many all-ages movies cram in familiar faces. Indeed, "Spy Kids" boasts a star-studded cast, but out of a combination of love of the medium and Rodriguez's own film history, things get a little more interesting here.

Bonafide A-lister George Clooney appears as spy chief Devlin. Anchoring the main cast, we have Antonio Banderas as Gregorio, our heroes' dad, well-known for star turns in films like "Evita," "The Mask of Zorro," and Rodriguez's "Desperado."  Kids might recognize him from his scene-stealing role as Puss in Boots in the "Shrek" movies as well. Genre-loving grown-ups will spot plenty of other favorite actors, including Bill Paxton, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub, Ricky Gervais, Robert Patrick, and a genuine action hero in Sylvester Stallone, who plays the big bad of "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over." The baddie of "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" has a pedigree as well: He's played by Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill."

Notably, the "Spy Kids" series is also a showcase of Latin American excellence. Luminaries including Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Salma Hayek, Jessica Alba, and Ricardo Montalban are all present.

Elijah Wood, the not-so-chosen one

One "Spy Kids" star appears in an especially brief but hilarious role that plays off his established image. In "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," Juni enters a virtual reality game and discovers the other players think he's a messianic figure they call "the Guy." After Juni repeatedly screws up, however, they start to doubt him. A new character soon appears, claiming that he is the real Guy. He seems to prove this by smashing his way into the unwinnable final level ... where he is immediately killed, as one hit eats up all 99 of his lives.

This is an odd and potentially disturbing moment for young viewers, but adults shouldn't have much trouble seeing what's going on. The Guy is played by Elijah Wood, who had just wrapped up his tenure as Frodo Baggins, the world-saving hero of "The Lord of the Rings," when this movie was made. That gives him plenty of chosen-one bonafides, which Rodriguez takes down a couple pegs through such an undignified death. Wood apparently has a good sense of humor about it, though: He and Rodriguez teamed up again the following year for "Sin City," in which Wood plays a depraved serial killer.

Spy Kids sets the stage for Machete

Danny Trejo, who plays the kids' Uncle Machete, is one of the most memorable parts of the "Spy Kids" movies. The character obviously stuck with Rodriguez as much as he did with audiences: His throwback movie "Grindhouse," created with Quentin Tarantino, features a number of fake trailers, including one for an action vehicle starring Machete. "Machete" soon became a very real movie, and reached actual theater screens in 2010. It lives up to its over-the-top promises, featuring jaw-dropping zaniness like Machete riding the shockwave of an explosion on a Gatling gun-equipped motorcycle and a bad guy getting crushed to death by the bouncing hydraulics of a custom car.

"Machete" and its sequel, 2013's "Machete Kills," don't fit neatly into the "Spy Kids" universe. The Machete of "Spy Kids" is a kind of blue-collar Q, while the Machete of "Machete" is an ex-federale reduced to manual labor. Moreover, many of Trejo's "Spy Kids" co-stars, including Cheech Marin, Jessica Alba, and the spy kids themselves, Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega, appear as separate characters in these movies. This Machete also has a totally different estranged brother, played by Marin, while Antonio Banderas' Gregorio is nowhere in sight. Still, an adult can't help but chuckle at the fact that such a thoroughly kid-unfriendly character has his roots in "Spy Kids."

Floop's castle could have been designed by Antoni Gaudi

The villain of the first "Spy Kids" film is Fegan Floop, a kids' show host with a sideline in arms dealing. It turns out, his fantastical hideaway isn't just a set — he really does live in an island palace that would make both Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Pee-wee Herman jealous.

Those two aren't the only influences that went into Casa Floop. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in their review, the castle closely resembles the work of legendary Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Born in 1852, Gaudí was a visionary artist whose work remains unique, years after his death. Many of his most famous creations can be seen in Barcelona, including the Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia, a basilica that has taken over a century to build and remains unfinished to this day.

Gaudí rejected traditional ideas of ordered structure, preferring to take inspiration from natural forms full of irregular curves. This makes his work a perfect inspiration for the topsy-turvy playland of Floop's castle, which features Gaudí'-esque motifs including rough-hewn stone, scale-shaped tiles, circular panels of stained glass, and twisting roofs.

Spy Kids sneaks in PG-rated cussing

Parents are likely to drag their kids out of any movie featuring salty language. Accordingly, the MPAA rating system ensures family movies have a limited vocabulary at their disposal. Screenwriters have found plenty of workarounds, of course: Classic kid-friendly substitutions like "heck," "darn," and "dang" are common. But some movies, like "Spy Kids," get a little more creative with their PG-appropriate cursing.

When Carmen and Juni are cornered by an army of super-strong robotic children, Carmen mutters, "Oh, shiitake mushrooms." Kids won't think much of it, but parents will be trying desperately not to get caught laughing at this moment. Alexa Vega's delivery makes it twice as funny: She draws out that first syllable, appears to realize what she's saying, then racks her brain for a way to avoid cursing in front of her little brother. It's a good enough gag to be worth repeating — when rival agent Gary Giggles tries to smooth-talk Carmen in "Spy Kids 2," she replies, "You are so full of shiitake mushrooms."

Spy Kids features work from music legends

To the excitement of many adult audiophiles in the "Spy Kids" audience, Rodriguez tapped Los Angeles rock legends Los Lobos to perform the first film's main theme. Titled "Oye Como Spy," the track combines mambo king Tito Puente's classic "Oye Como Va" with the brass-band-meets-surf-rock vibe of John Barry's classic "James Bond Theme." What results is a perfect mission statement for Rodriguez's reimagining of the spy genre. Notably, "Spy Kids" wasn't Los Lobos' first time making music for the movies: Their cover of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," recorded for the 1987 biopic of the same name, took them to the top of the charts.

"Spy Kids" also gives Alan Cumming, who plays Floop, a solo number. If the distinctively unnerving melody tickles something familiar in the back of your brain, there's a reason why: It's the work of Danny Elfman. A rock star in his own right, Elfman fronted the cult new wave band Oingo Boingo before he went Hollywood. Moviegoers know his unique sound from "Edward Scissorhands," Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies, "The Simpsons," and dozens of other projects.

The Giggles are accompanied by musical teasing

The soundtrack to "Spy Kids 2" is filled with club-ready bangers and sly hidden jokes. Cleverly, the melody of "Floop's Dream" is woven throughout the movie, tweaked and twisted until it's nearly unrecognizable. But an even more sly moment of musical magic arrives alongside Carmen and Juni's evil counterparts, Gary and Gerti Giggles.

The Giggles twosome are accompanied throughout the movie by the same six notes kids everywhere have silently agreed form the best way to tease each other musically: "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah." These obnoxious syllables sum the siblings up in the most visceral way possible. Adults will further notice how this simple melody is switched up to fit every context the characters inhabit: Pitch, instrumentation, and tempo are all changed as needed, yet the song remains resolutely bratty. Most memorably, the theme builds to a frantic pace as Gerti insists Gary speed up their submarine to catch up with the Cortez kids. 

Aztec temples somehow exist in Madagascar

Exotic locations are a major part of spy movies' appeal. "Spy Kids" carries on this tradition so successfully, it can out-exotic even the most tenuously realistic espionage flick. Just look at the titular island of "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams," which is crowded with deep jungles, undead skeletons, bizarre genetic experiments, and cursed temples.

Kids will eat this up, but adults may have some questions. In their pre-mission briefing, Carmen and Juni learn the island is somewhere off the coast of Madagascar. Yet much of what they find there belongs to a different hemisphere, especially the Aztec temple that clearly resembles ones found on the other side of the Atlantic. There are even recreations of famous pieces of ancient Aztec art present! Kids might appreciate a movie that doesn't require any knowledge of actual geography, but adults will find the film's fast and loose depiction of ancient art confusing.

The golden idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark makes a cameo

Like his friend and collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez isn't shy about dropping references to his favorite movies into his own work. When Carmen and Juni enter the Aztec temple in "Spy Kids 2," a lot of adult viewers start flashing back to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Rodriguez is way ahead of them: In the treasure room, Carmen finds a squatting, golden statue that's nearly identical to the one Indiana Jones is after in the 1981 classic.

Fortunately, the idol's just lying loose on the floor and not on a booby-trapped pedestal. The Cortez kids end up dealing with a whole different kind of threat when the skeletal remains of the buccaneers who raided the island centuries earlier come back to life. It might seem like Rodriguez is stealing from another movie where cursed Aztec gold animates skeletal pirates, but that's pure coincidence — "Spy Kids 2" actually beat "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" to theaters by a year.

Spy Kids pays tribute to Ray Harryhausen

One filmmaker looms large over "Spy Kids 2," but he never sat in the director's chair. We're talking about Ray Harryhausen, the master effects animator behind classics like "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad" and "Clash of the Titans." The creatures created by Steve Buscemi's Romero would have fit right into one of Harryhausen's productions — "Spy Kids 2" might boast CGI, but its monsters preserve Harryhausen's trademark jerkiness. That's no accident in a medium where smooth animation is actually easier.

Though these creations don't exist outside a computer server, the tactile texture that characterizes Harryhausen's work is apparent in the spider monkey's lumpy skin and the slizzard's wrinkly neck. When they meet for a monster-on-monster battle, it echoes the clash between the cyclops and the dragon in "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." The most obvious homage, however, is Carmen and Juni's battle with the resurrected skeletons. This moment takes overt inspiration from Harryhausen's undead warriors born from the Hydra's teeth in "Jason and the Argonauts." The boney baddies even corner the heroes on a rocky outcropping, recreating the iconic scene in which Jason fights off the undead from the top of a ruined staircase.

A very young Selena Gomez cameos in Spy Kids 3-D

The "Spy Kids" series works in plenty of small parts for big stars, but at least one instance happened by complete accident. At the beginning of "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," Juni retires from the OSS to work as a private eye. This gives the series a chance for yet another genre parody that sails right over kids' heads. We see him at work solving the "mystery" of what happened to all the water in the local water park during the winter. His client, dressed like a teeny femme fatale, didn't look familiar to kids — or anyone else — back in 2003. But grown-up viewers of today with some detective skills of their own will recognize her as Selena Gomez. 

At the time, Gomez had only appeared on "Barney and Friends." But it wouldn't be long before she became a star through the Disney Channel's "Wizards of Waverly Place," which hit the airwaves in 2007. Disney's star-making machine propelled her into a wildly successful musical career, with inescapable singles including "Come and Get It," "Bad Liar," and the number-one hit "Lose You to Love Me." That doesn't mean she's left her acting roots behind, however. Recently, Gomez made waves by staring opposite Steve Martin and Martin Short on Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building."