Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jake Short, Trevor Gagnon
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)
There’s no denying filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is a kid at heart. Whether he’s firebombing dusty Mexican villages or journeying into virtual worlds with pint-sized superheroes, Rodriguez is a very likeable director. He’s like that popular little boy in elementary school everyone wanted to be friends with because of his impressive toy collection.
The problem with Rodriguez is that he still hasn’t found a way to make his toys for tikes as much fun as the ones for the big boys. While there was minimal success with the original “Spy Kids” in 2001, its two sequels and the ridiculous “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” that followed failed to show the same unique voice Rodriguez had at the start of his career. (YouTube “Bedhead,” his first family-friendly short he made back in 1991).
Almost 20 years later, Rodriguez continues to run into the same familiar dilemma with his newest age-appropriate adventure. In “Shorts,” the auteur from Austin, Texas has kicked over his toy chest to reveal all the playthings he has collected over the years. The overabundance of imagination and silliness, however, is just too much for one tiny movie to handle.
Putting his head together with one of his real-life sons (he did the same with “Sharkboy”), Rodriguez siphons as much childhood fantasy as he possibly can before writing an overly-ambitious story about a small, tight-knit suburb that goes topsy-turvy when a rainbow-colored, wish-granting rock falls from the sky and lands in the community.
Jimmy Bennett (“Orphan”) is Toby Thompson, a bullied kid who gets his hands on the rock right before Rodriguez starts to play his cinematic version of hot potato and tosses the main computer-generated prop around to everyone. This includes brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez), and Laser (Leo Howard), who can’t seem to get a grasp on their wishing technique.
Leslie Mann (“Funny People”), Jon Cryer (TV’s “Two and a Half Men”), and Kat Dennings (“The House Bunny”) round out the rest of the Thompson family – Mom, Dad, and sister Stacey – who don’t have much luck with the rock either. When Stacey tells her immature older boyfriend that she wishes he’d “grow up,” he literally becomes 40 feet tall. When Toby tells his parents he wishes they “were closer,” their bodies mesh into a two-headed-mom-dad hybrid.
In addition to the main cast and all the CGI already crowding the screen, Rodriguez has more characters up his sleeve, including germaphobic scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) and his son Nose (Jake Short), who unleashes a booger monster with the help of his father’s laboratory experiments. The slimy green gunk isn’t the only villain running amok. Mr. Black (James Spader) and his two gothic kids Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and Cole (Devon Gearhart) instill fear into the rest of the community while pursuing the rock for its endless power.
Even with Rodriguez breaking “Shorts” into more controllable vignettes, he decides to make the process even more chaotic than it has to be by editing the entire film out of sequence and trusting kids under the age of 12 haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a risky attempt that unfortunately doesn’t work as well as he would have hoped.
While a handful of the child actors are cast well, Rodriguez focuses more on special effects and overuses slapstick to reach the film’s demographic. There are only so many times someone can bump their head before the joke just isn’t funny anymore. In “Shorts,” Rodriguez never knows when to say when.