Movies like Spy Kids and Catch That Kid, which focus on children, have a challenging task. Too much into the kid adventure without adding enough substance, and the film just becomes something adults play in the background. Too much into the adult stuff, though, and the film risks being out of touch with the intended audience.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose work together includes Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 and 4) have managed to create a worthwhile addition to the kid-friendly film genre. The main attraction of Secret Headquarters is its kid protagonists and its intimate familial bond.
[Ed. note: This review contains small setup spoilers for Secret Headquarters.]
Jack Kincaid (Owen Wilson) discovers an extraterrestrial energy source, which bonds with him ten years later. He only sees his son, Charlie (Walker Scobell), during superhero meetings, which he often cancels when a work emergency arises. Charlie, though, is the Guards' biggest fan.
Charlie and his friends his bestie Berger (Keith L. Williams), social media-savvy Maya (Momona Tamada) stumble upon the Guards' secret headquarters in Jacks' home. At first, it's all fun and games as they mess around with the high-tech gadgets. But soon, they're caught by defense magnate Ansel Argon (Michael Pena), who wants to use the Guards' technology for himself.
The guards' only weakness is the shabby design. From the HUD display as Jack flies through the sky, through the armor plating, it all feels like a reused item. The same can be said for the titular secret headquarters, which also feels like a recycled asset. The action scenes in the film take place during the big school dance.
Secret Headquarters almost falls into a similar trap as Enola Holmes' Secret Society of Second-Born Royals: It introduces more complex concepts without ever fully addressing them (In those latter two films, it's Oh man, maybe its bad that Parliament is exclusively ruled by rich, white, landowners, but were not really gonna do anything and Oh huh, I guess I shouldnt rally for my country's monarchy to bedissolved, now that I've patched things up with my sister!)
Argon argues that one individual shouldnt be responsible for saving the whole world. But it's made clear early on that he's mostly saying that he's making a profit, and his primary concern is making a profit. The family drama, though, keeps the stakes small yet completely realistic, allowing the film to be relatable even if none of the people watching have secretly superpowered dads.
The focus shifts to Charlie and his friends throughout the film, although she is absent for the majority of the films. Lizzie, in particular, might be tempted to fall into mean, popular-girl stereotypes, but she ends up being the most adept at escape rooms. The film is similarly enjoyable when the focus shifts more on the adults rather than the kids.
When Secret Headquarters indulges the delights of kids with superpowered gadgets, it shines. When it narrows the focus to the conflict between Charlie and his dad and the impact that being a masked vigilante has on family life, it stands out from other films in the kid discover superpowers and super-gadgets subgenre. It could use a little less emphasis on the serious adult issues of it all, but when Joost and Schulman narrow the plot to smaller stakes and subtler antics,
On August 12, Secret Headquarters will be available on Paramount Plus.