Who doesn’t love a good mystery? I feel like I say that every time I set out to review a mystery story, but it remains true. I just love mysteries. There’s something really enjoyable, though, about mysteries aimed at kids. It’s charming how simple those mysteries are and how they’re often used as a frame through which some kind of moral can be taught to children. Which is exactly where Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy comes in. An English dub of a Danish film, Nabospionen, Next Door Spy is a weird little film. Ostensibly aimed at kids, I’m unsure exactly who the target audience is. It features a pretty simplistic plot, some surprisingly less-kid-friendly language, some uneven vocal performances, and some beautiful animation. It’s a mixed bag, but an enjoyable one. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)
Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy (written and directed by Karla von Bengtson)
The film follows ten-year old Agathe-Christine, who dreams about mystery from her new family’s basement, where she’s established a little detective bureau. But while solving the first mystery, she soon finds herself involved in a much more complicated case, bigger than she ever imagined.
Next Door Spy is a really weird narrative. It’s simultaneously exactly what you’d expect from the summary and also something extremely weird. Agathe-Christine is one of those precocious children who constantly finds themselves getting into trouble while they believe they’re doing the right thing. Throughout the film, Agathe-Christine sets out to solve the mystery of who’s been stealing from a local convenience store. But she pretty quickly obsesses over her neighbor across the street, Vincent, as the suspect. And that’s where her behavior gets a little questionable and where the bulk of the film’s conflict comes from. In this sense, Next Door Spy is exactly what you’d expect it to be. There’s a fairly obvious solution to the mystery but the film is more about Agathe-Christine’s character journey than it is about the mystery. It’s about her learning to be more honest and trusting of people. A good moral to teach kids.
The catch, however, is that it’s all sort of muddled by some really odd elements. Firstly, for a film that seems aimed at fairly young audiences, there’s a surprising amount of questionable language. Now, I’m not one to care that much about bad language – I tend to think America’s obsession with censoring “cuss words” is ridiculous – but I also recognize that people might not want a film that’s probably aimed at pre-teens to feature such language. And, to be fair, it’s not like Next Door Spy is dropping any “f-bombs” or anything; if memory serves, the worst it gets is damn/hell, which isn’t unusual for a PG film. But it’s worth pointing out considering the main audience for this film. The next problem is the film’s pacing. For a film that’s clearly aimed at a young audience, large swathes of it isn’t really that interesting. There’s a lot of sameness to the second act, where it just feels like the film is running in place and killing time until it can finally get to the climax. It does do a bit of character work there, but I can’t tell if it will interest kids or not. I, personally, found it enjoyable enough. But I am also not a kid.
The biggest problem, though, is the talking lizard. Early in the film, Agathe-Christine has an egg that hatches into a small lizard. He’s a cute little guy, but he talks. And it’s weird because no other animals in the film talk. But that part’s not too hard to go with; these kinds of movies often have little things like that. Where it gets truly weird is when the lizard grows up (which he does remarkably quickly). The older the lizard gets, the darker he becomes. He quickly goes from being a supportive companion to Agathe-Christine to an active antagonist. He’s just… vicious. And the scenes with the lizard just feel so out of place. I’d guess the movie is going for something along the lines of the lizard is a personification of Agathe-Christine’s doubts or fears or something but it never quite coalesces the way the film wants it to and you’re just left feeling confused and somewhat disturbed by it. I honestly think there are moments where the lizard is too scary and it’s just not fun to watch. I think the film would’ve been better if it had just ditched that entire subplot and spent more time properly developing Agathe-Christine and her relationships with the rest of the characters. On the whole, these problems aren’t enough to completely derail the film, but I do think they’re significant enough to impact some people’s enjoyment. I enjoyed the film for the most part, but these elements definitely hindered my enjoyment a bit.
On the technical side of things, Next Door Spy continues to be a mixed bag. Visually, it’s a good looking film. The animation goes for that cut-out, 2-D style of animation that never really caught on in mainstream American animated films but had a good life in indie fare. It’s very simple but there’s a definite charm and style to the animation. It flows really well and it’s a treat to watch. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the film’s script and voice acting. Now, to be fair, I watched the English dub of the film and I have no idea how accurate the English script is to the original Danish script. It’s entirely possible that every problem I have with the script and voice acting are exclusive to the English version, but as that’s the version I’ve seen, it’s the version I have to judge. As is, the dialogue is often clunky and the voice acting ranges from solid to extremely wooden and awkward. It honestly feels like a lot of the actors weren’t in the same room with each other and so had nothing to feed off of. It’s clear that everybody is trying their best but there’s just something about it that didn’t work for me. I suspect the dialogue and voice acting worked better in the original Danish, though. This is always the problem one runs into when watching a dub. It’s hard to perfectly translate the nuances of one language into another. But still, it was a disappointment to me. I don’t know if kids will care that much about the voice acting but adults will definitely notice.
At the end of the day, Agathe-Christine: Next Door Spy is a weird little film. It’s definitely aimed at kids, but some of it feels a little too old and for the audience it seems to be courting. The animation is really pretty, but the dialogue and voice acting is often clunky. It’s really cute and has a great message, but I am unsure how appealing it will be to kids due to a slow-paced second act. On the whole, I enjoyed it. It’s cute for what it is but there are a few really strange moments (like that talking lizard) that really threw me for a loop. But there is also a lot to enjoy. I’d be really curious to know how it was received in Denmark. Does it work better in its original language? I dunno. There’s definitely a charm to the film, and it’s an enjoyable watch. I’d recommend it to families in need of something new to watch. It’s certainly worth a look. But be aware of the questionable language and somewhat darker elements.
3.5 out of 5 wands.
Thanks to TriCoast Entertainment for access to a screener of this film. It is now available on various digital platforms.