Some big Hollywood sequels are just overblown rehashes of the original. But Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" is at least partly an exception: a second chapter to a big movie hit that offers more bang for the buck, a few more dreams for the dollar.
"SK2" is a children's movie done with genuinely youthful spirit and an easy self-kidding mastery of its own high-tech gadgetry. I suspect most kids, if not all adults, will like it as much as they did last year's "Spy Kids": the picture in which we were first introduced to Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), two tot superspies with Licenses to Thrill.
Like its predecessor, "Spy Kids 2" is an opulent comedy-fantasy that sets its small kid heroes Carmen (now 13) and Juni (now 9) -- and their spy parents, stalwart Gregorio and intrepid Ingrid Cortez (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) -- in a wild whirligig mix of James Bondish cliches and imagery ransacked from children's TV and old movies: rampaging monsters done in the style of '50s-'60s fantasy movie creature king Ray Harryhausen ("Jason and the Argonauts"), sadistic villains and dazzlingly overwrought techno-gimmicks. (There's even a mad scientist, played by Steve Buscemi.)
Rodriguez recycles and refurbishes all these old movie bits with the opportunistic energy of a man looting his old attic toy chest -- but he also puts some personal feeling into the movie. This is a film about families staying together, children asserting themselves and even, to some degree, Latino power.
The plot does suggest a retread at times: Carmen and Juni have to rescue their parents once again, this time from political chicanery in the spy agency. In the beginning -- after a Bondian parody set-piece in which President Chris MacDonald's cute daughter (Taylor Momsen) has to be rescued at a nightmarish theme park -- a conniving rival, Donnagan Giggles (Mike Judge) takes over the agency.
With their parents one-upped by the wily, back-stabbing Donnagan, and Carmen and Juni themselves replaced by new official superkid heroes -- Gary and Gerti Giggles (Matt O'Leary and Emily Osment) -- the Cortez kids once again have to save the day. Before long they're traveling via Dragon Ship to the far-off Island of Forgotten Dreams and battling the Giggles kids and hordes of mutant Harryhausen monsters (created by Buscemi's nervous inventor Romero) to recover the crucial lost Transmooker device.
"SK2" is one mass-audience movie that unself-consciously assumes a child's point of view, playing to the 12-year-and-under crowd without any condescension. Even though Vega and Sabara aren't the best child actors around -- they pale next to little Emily's brother Haley Joel Osment -- they're fun to watch. The adults seem to be having a good time too. Banderas and Gugino are an attractive if underused couple, Buscemi flusters and fidgets in a Don Knotts vein, Mike Judge (the creator and director of "Beavis and Butthead') makes a suitably arch villain, Cheech Marin (as Uncle Felix) and Alan Cumming (as Kid-show king Fegan Floop) amiably reprise their 2001 "SK" roles -- and the Kids' grandparents show up, played by Holland Taylor and (lending yet another movie his inimitable grace) 81-year-old Ricardo Montalban.
The presence of Montalban, Marin, Banderas and the others cues the movie's Latino consciousness. So does the entire Cortez family; the name of Banderas' character, in fact, may be an inside reference to the dead-serious 1982 dramatic film, "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez." But there's no preaching in "SK2," unless it's for the non-controversial notion that families should stick together. This is the sort of movie a fond dad might tell his own kids -- if he had Miramax and a $37 million budget to back him up.
It's also a picture that assumes that kids are quick, clever and clued right into the electronic age: that they'll pick up, or ride along with, lots of inside references, jokes and allusions and dig the world of crazily exaggerated gadgetry Rodriguez and his collaborators create.
Rodriguez is a virtual one-man band here, listing himself in the credits with 13 different jobs, including the key posts of director, writer, editor, cinematographer, production designer and visual effects supervisor, while sharing the credits of composer (with John Debney) and producer (with his wife Elizabeth Avellan).
In a way, this harks back to the 23-year-old Rodriguez's multiple production roles on "El Mariachi": the $7,000 budgeted 1992 action movie whose genesis he chronicled in his feisty memoir, "Rebel without a Crew."
Did Rodriguez really do all these jobs at once? And, if he could, do Hollywood studios really need the small cities they list in the closing credits of most of their movies? Maybe not. But Rodriguez shot "SK2" with high-definition digital cameras and, in some ways, he really may be heralding a new style here: a more manageable, quasi-independent approach to mass-market filmmaking.
In the end though, Rodriguez's movie belongs not to the tech-heads, but the kids to whom it's so obviously pitched and whose fantasies it seems so generously to catch.
You don't have to be a child to enjoy "Spy Kids 2," but it certainly helps.
3 stars (out of 4)
"Spy Kids 2: The island of Lost Dreams"
Directed, edited, written, photographed and production designed by Robert Rodriguez; music by Rodriguez, John Debney; visual effects supervisor and sound designer Rodriguez; produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Rodriguez. A Miramax/Dimension Films release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG (Action sequences and brief rude humor).
Gregorio Cortez -- Antonio Banderas
Carmen Cortez -- Alexa Vega
Juni Cortez -- Daryl Sabara
Ingrid Cortez -- Carla Gugino
Romero -- Steve Buscemi
Donnagan Giggles -- Mike Judge
Gary & Gerti Giggles -- Matt O'Leary & Emily Osment
Grandfather -- Ricardo Montalban
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.