Next Door Spy – a 2017 Danish film released in English-speaking territories this month – isn’t your average kids’ film. Sure, it has plenty of the hallmarks of the genre, from quirky animation to a bubbly child lead, but some of its themes and characters take this in a direction that makes it enjoyable for the whole family.
The film follows Agatha Christine (or AC, as she prefers to be called), a young budding detective who has just moved to a new town with her mother and two siblings – a town where her case-solving antics are deemed childish and unusual. Assigned her first case by the local shopkeeper, AC initially tries to track down a thief, but as she gets further embroiled in the case, she finds it’s more complicated than meets the eye.
The most apparent strength of Next Door Spy is its animation. The visual style is quirky and detailed, with plenty of well-drawn items adorning shelves, and pleasant character models and designs – particularly some really cute dogs. In an era where 3D animation seems to dominate the genre, it’s refreshing to see a 2D film that does something different with its visuals, and the film is stronger for it. You won’t have seen any animation quite like it, with the design particularly paying off in the noir-inflected black-and-white dream sequences, showing AC as a full-blown detective. These moments are stylish and fun, and compound the clever spin on the detective genre that Next Door Spy provides, most notably with a great visual gag where AC replaces the classic detective’s pipe with bubblegum – some brilliant satire.
And as a twist on detective films, Next Door Spy takes what could’ve been a by-the-numbers mystery and makes it pretty unique. There are some good developments that I won’t spoil, but the dynamic between AC and skater boy Vincent is particularly interesting, with some nice dialogue between them and a toe-curling subplot focusing on embarrassing mothers and the classic teenage rumour mill. The film puts an adolescent twist on the genre’s key tropes, which gives it a refreshing spin, with AC’s youthful ambition to solve the case leading to some amusing detective sequences. That said, the dialogue is at times clunky and a little exposition-heavy, but the intriguing mystery ramps up in the final third, and makes up for these shortcomings.
One particularly interesting element is the thematic darkness that Next Door Spy occasionally hints at. This is best personified by AC’s pet reptile, who starts off cute and innocent, craving snacks more than anything, with some great gags – particularly one where, following a monologue from AC, he simply replies ‘Do you have food then?’ – but slowly develops into something totally different. No spoilers here, but the reptile’s snark and sarcasm is something we don’t often see within this genre, and it becomes a great counter-point to the cheerfulness seen elsewhere in the film. This narrative risk – also seen in themes such as child abduction and running away from home – are something a lot of kids’ films would shy away from, so Next Door Spy‘s decision not only to include these, but to explore them in unique ways, must be commended.
These moves away from traditional family cinema are what makes Next Door Spy stand out. Having the protagonist be flawed and constantly make mistakes doesn’t render her useless, but if anything more endearing, and it helps build a nice message within the film around being yourself, and not conforming to what society wants you to be. Yet when it wants to go down the route of sticking to genres – following the structure of classic detective stories and having plenty of innocent yet solid humour (particularly with AC’s mother, who is the funniest here) – it succeeds too.
Don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last we see of Agatha Christine: although the dialogue is at times clunky, Next Door Spy is a refreshing family film that has some left-field elements that really work in its favour, while also telling an intriguing and solid detective story – making the film appealing to children and adults alike.