Of all the major American animation studios to have dominated computer animation in the 21st Century, Blue Sky Studios has almost always had to settle for being the scrappy, hopeless one. And this has only become more pronounced since the 2019 takeover of 20th Century Fox by the Walt Disney Company, which makes Blue Sky no less than the third animation studio owned by Disney, and certainly the most unloved. So part of me wants to treasure Spies in Disguise, and cuddle it close to my breast, and pet its head; while officially, the studio still exists, and even has a project in the pipeline this latest feature - lucky number 13, no less - has the distinct feeling of a swan song, the last effort by Blue Sky to make people love it the way they love Illumination Entertainment, or DreamWorks Animation (given that being loved the way its corporate cousins Disney and Pixar are loved seems wholly out of the question).

The bad news first: Spies in Disguise is absolutely not lovable. It reeks of cynical calculation, combining two of the very laziest ideas out there: the celebrity-voiced talking animal cartoon and the James Bond parody. The last time I can remember this being done specifically was in 2010's Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, which might be the most insulting comparison I know how to make. Spies in Disguise is better than that, obviously - I'm not lying dead of a brain hemorrhage in the theater, so we know that much - but it is certainly not doing anything to make that genre mash-up feel even a little tiny bit inspired or entertaining. It is a methodically soulless affair, with every single plot development and line of dialogue functioning in such a mechanical way that it seems like a conference room full of screenwriters had to sign off on each one, not just the credited Brad Copeland (whose main contribution to the "wacky talking animals" genre is the monumentally horrid 2010 feature film version of Yogi Bear) and Lloyd Taylor. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, writing-wise, is that buries the usual "don't let everybody else tell you that you're weird, go out and chase your dreams" kiddie film bromides inside of an avowed pacifist message that insists on the need to arm our police forces with nonlethal weapons, though it would be film too much credit to say that it has presented this message in a coherent way (the non-lethal weapons are repurposed as clubs to beat the villain up in the climax).

Anyway, let's see how far I can recap before I pass out from boredom. Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is the greatest superspy at an unnamed agency operated by the United States, but even he's not incapable of failure; we first meet him in Japan, attempting to prevent the hand-off of a stolen A.I. drone from arms dealer Katsu Kimura (Masi Oka) to Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a megalomaniacΒ  with a robot hand. He almost manages to do so, taking what turns out to be an empty case back to the States, where he is promptly accused of treason by internal affairs agent Marcy (Rashida Jones). As one will, he decides to go on the lam to clear his name, taking with him disgraced tech designer Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), whose tools are all extremely cute and serve to make the bad guys feel amiable, thus making them easier to catch. For example, showing them pictures of kitties in the smoke from glitter grenade bombs. Impressively, Spies in Disguise argues for nonlethal police procedures so badly that it made me root for violence. Also, the film has already introduced Walter's dead mom (Rachel Brosnahan) in its opening scene: she's a cop herself, and the good trustworthy kind of cop, so basically I don't think this film has a goddamn clue what it's arguing for.

Anyway, Lance needs to go into hiding, and Walter has a new science drink that can turn people into pigeons. Just like that, Lance is a bird (this is the point where I grow mildly impressed that they had the restraint not to give him the name "Lance Starling"), and he's very grumpy about it, and you had better believe that he and Walter will need to learn to work together if they're going to stop Killian, and find a way to turn Lance back into a human. If you're old enough to be reading this on your own, I expect you know how it goes.

This is all miserable garbage, of course. It has a number of cloaca jokes that I found deeply uncomfortable, for starters (admittedly, there is no positive number of cloaca jokes that I would have found comfortable). And it doesn't even really do anything with making Lance a pigeon, until the very end - the jokes are all very generic, mostly centering Lance's annoyance and Walter's increasingly hostile naΓ―vetΓ©, and Smith and Holland contentedly give performances that do no more than play up the most superficial beats of their characters, without trying to nurture the humor in their lines (if I had to come up with anybody in the cast - which also includes Reba McIntire as the no-nonsense spymaster, and DJ Khaled and Karen Gillan as Marcy's lackeys - who's actually doing something worthwhile, I think it would have to be Oka, who at least gets to do some goofy stuff later on in the movie).

It is still in the top half of Blue Sky productions, which is not a hard thing to achieve. This is mostly because, somehow, it feels like actual effort was put into designing, lighting, and animating the thing, a nice effort for the studio behind five Ice Ages and two Rios. The lighting is obviously the best of it, ably creating several different moods for the several different locations in the film, and ranging from the realistic motivation of strobing lights on police cars to the wholly atmospheric cherry red gloom of the skies over Washington, DC during Killian's drone attack. But something nice must also be said about the pigeons, who feel exactly like cartoon characters. Which, of course, they are, but that doesn't always matter. Here, though, the character animation of pigeon-Lance, as well as the three featured comic pigeons with whom he reluctantly teams up, has something delightfully slapsticky and snappy, as though they're rubber band balls with feathers painted on them. They movie in jerky, bouncy rhythms, more fluid than like bony animals. It's genuinely delightful, and more than enough to compensate for how very boring most of the humans are, when they're not actively ugly (the exception is Kimura, so between the fun squash-and-stretch the animators subject him to, and Oka's aforementioned performance, I guess the lesson is that he should have been the protagonist, somehow). On top of all of this, the opening credits are wonderful, one of the most thoughtful parodies of a James Bond credit sequence I've ever seen, because rather than simply going for jokes, it starts from first principles: what would a Bond credit sequence look like if Bond was a pigeon?

A little thing, but enough to make me feel mildly warm towards the film. Extremely mild, and it didn't last. But one does get the sense that Blue Sky was trying to do their very best work with Spies in Disguise, showing what they could achieve as animation craftspeople, if not as animation storytellers. Only time will tell if it's enough to save them, and I honestly don't find myself terrible concerned with finding out; but if this is where Blue Sky ends, at least it went out on a relative high note.