Secret Headquarters: Qualified Recommendation

Watchable kids movies are pretty rare these days, and most of that fare consists of weird rubberface CGI cartoons.  Which is why, if you have a kid in that 10-15 demographic, you should give Secret Headquarters a look.

To get a few of the usual objections out of the way first…

Yes, it features the ubiquitous Burger King Kids Club collection in the main cast.  Yes, the central character gets upstaged by his stunning and brave love interest.  Yes, they made the decision to spotlight Mom not as a domestic type, but as a motorcycle mechanic hobbyist(?).  All the usual boxes are checked, but done so with a very  subtle touch that makes you nostalgic for kid movies of the 1990s.

So what does the film do right?  A lot.

The core plot follows a middle-school boy, Charlie, as he copes with his father’s busy work schedule and juggles the usual demands of that awkward phase between childhood and adulthood.  He discovers his father’s titular secret headquarters and inadvertently advertises its location to the bad guys, which puts he and his friends square in the line of danger.  Now Dad has to rush back to save his son, protect his secret identity, and salvage what he can of their relationship.

It’s a super-hero movie, but one about a workaholic superhero father struggling to find the right work-life balance.  He isn’t presented as a bad guy or a neglectful father, though.  The film respects that he is torn between duty to his family and duty to the rest of the world.  He carries a heavy burden and the film never judges him for that.  His son, left in the dark, understandably judges his father for being largely absent from his life, and it is this tension that forms the heart of the movie.  Even Mom struggles with this tension, caught in the same middle as the rest of the family.  This is a film that acknowledges and respects a man’s duty to protect others, to serve his community, and still be there for his family.  This is a film about how hard it can be to strike the right balance.

Our hero, Charlie, is a good looking and blonde-haired athlete.  Wait, what?  Yeah, weird, I know.  Charlie pitches as a reliever for his Junior High baseball team.  He might not be an all-star, but the one match-up we’re shown consists of Charlie valiantly squaring off against one of those mutant middle-school jocks who hit puberty at the age of nine and just never stopped growing.  It’s a nice David and Goliath moment, which doesn’t kick off a growth arc.  Instead, it sets up a motivation for Charlie to abuse his new-found power once he gets ahold of Dad’s super-tech, and gives more development and character beats as Charlie to learn the Spiderman lesson about power and responsibility.

Strangely, our stunning and brave love interest who knows kung-fu and is super brave and has travelled the world so she knows what’s up…is shown to be emotionally vulnerable.  She still suffers from slights thrown her way by Charlie years before.  She starts the film as a cookie-cutter character, then grows into a three-dimensional person by the film’s end.  Don’t let me oversell this, it’s still a kid movie, so the beats are obvious and the emotional “trauma” appropriately low-stakes, but it rounds out the character, and it provides a very refreshing oasis in the Hollywood desert.  As does the film’s denouement in which – spoilers – our hero not only wins the girl, but doesn’t suffer the ignominy of getting blown off by a woman who don’t need no man.  Crazy, right?  I didn’t know they still made movies like this.

A last few words of warning: this is a relatively low budget offering from Amazon Studio.  That sounds off given that it is a Bruckheimer film, but Bruckheimer still has a gift for stretching his budgets to make films look and feel bigger than they are.  It does feature a touch of the Marvel-era ill-timed “humor” at critical moments of drama.  Unlike Marvel, however, this is done with a lot more care.  These brief pauses actually help with the pacing.  They give us a respite from what would otherwise be over-long the whiz-bang wahoo scenes, and they provide a little bit of additional context for what’s to follow.

If you’re burned out on cape stuff, or you don’t have a kid in the target audience in the house, this probably isn’t worth watching on its own merits.  But if you want to sit down for ninety-minutes with your brood and watch a fun adventure that doesn’t insult you for the duration, this one is safe and enjoyable for everyone.  And it might just help your kids see Dad in a whole new, and respectable, light.