If we look at the four family adventure films director Robert Rodriguez has given us over the past few years, we see a steady downward spiral from the genuinely fun and funny "Spy Kids" (2001); to the only slightly less-inventive "Spy Kids 2" (2002); to the cold, unfeeling "Spy Kids 3-D" (2003); and now to the uninspired and insipid "Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D" (2005). What started in a blaze of welcome entertainment for children and adults has exhausted itself through self-implosion. Too much of the same; too little of the same; makes no difference. "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" looks like the same tired old.
As a matter of background before we begin, Rodrigues explains on the audio commentary that the story idea for the movie was originally presented to him by his son, Racer Max Rodriguez, who was six-and-a-half years old at the time. While I certainly don't wish to cast aspersions on six-year-olds anywhere, the fact that the script was developed from a child's creative mind may help to explain why adults might not take such a fancy to it as readily as kids would. Rodriguez seems to have made the film for no other reason than his son suggested it. "What do you want for Christmas, son? Your own movie? Sure thing." I dunno. Sometimes, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something. I would have recommended the word "no."
The "3-D" business of the title, as you may have guessed, means that Rodríguez again shot his movie in three-dimension, just as he did "Spy Kids 3-D." You may have also guessed that the results are just as annoying as before. More on this in the "Video" section below. For now, let's concentrate on the movie.
The story is supposedly a part of a child's dream, a dream he is able to make come alive. As such, we get a fragmented narrative, a surreal plot, largely fantastic characters, and out-of-this-world scenery. Unfortunately, these elements don't add up to much in the way of a coherent movie, which I'm sure the director would defend by saying that that's the point.
A quote from Lavagirl prefaces the film: "Everything that is or was, began with a dream." I'm not sure what the line means, but it sets the tone for the dreamlike quality of the fabrication that follows. The action begins with a story that the main character, a fourth-grader named Max (Cayden Boyd), tells his elementary-school class about what he did the previous summer. He explains how he met Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley). Sharkboy, he says, became separated from his dad, a marine biologist, and was raised by sharks. The sharks trained him to survive, and "eventually he grew gills and sharp talons for claws," his teeth sharpened to points, and he grew fins. Max brought Sharkboy home with him, and then out of nowhere, Lavagirl appeared. Lavagirl is Sharkboy's friend, and she is too hot to touch anything; she can shoot lava out of her hands, and her hair and body are continually smoldering. She wanted Sharkboy to go back with her to her native planet, Drool, because a great crisis was developing, and they invited Max to come along with them, too. But Max could not go; he had school the next day.
That's where Max's story to the class ends, and where his classmates make fun of him for his overactive imagination. One boy is especially obnoxious, a bully named Linus (Jacob Davich), who calls Max names and eventually steals his notebook. The children's' teacher, Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez), tries to make peace between the boys, unsuccessfully.
Max is not having a good day. Nor a good life. Nobody believes his dreams. His teacher and his friends think he's weird. And to top it off, his parents (David Arquette and Kristin Davis) are not getting along and are thinking about divorce.
After this long buildup, the story actually begins. Whew! About time. During a huge storm at school, Sharkboy and Lavagirl show up in front of everybody to take Max off with them to Drool. They say that only he can save their planet from dying of complete darkness because, well, because he made them up, and only he knows their secrets. It seems that the dreams on Drool are going bad, and they need Max to set them right.
George Lopez shows up once again, this time on Drool in the form of Mr. Electric, an evil henchman on the dying planet; Jacob Davich shows up again, too, this time as another evildoer, Minus. The other characters are various computer-generated creatures that float, race, jump, bob, and weave around the plot line.
The planet itself looks like a gigantic amusement park, and all the adventures the kids have there are like giant amusement-park rides. Rodriguez shot everything on a soundstage in front of a green screen, with CGI effects added later. But unlike "Sin City," which the director was working on concurrently, his integration of live actors and computer surroundings doesn't blend well. The whole of "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" looks like a raucous animated cartoon, with nothing much related to anything else.
The child actors perform as kids might perform in a school play, meaning they do what they can, but even they must have found it hard to take any of this stuff seriously. The movie's theme--that people should never lose their sense of imagination or their lives will become dark and dreary--is commendable, but a lot of viewers older than six or eight are probably going to find the movie a long haul uphill just for the sake of an obvious message.
Although the story aspires to things like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Yellow Submarine," it has none of the warmth of those movies, none of the lovable characters, and none of the music. Moreover, there is very little humor in "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl," very little excitement, very little tension, suspense, expectancy, or thrill. We find only disjointed clamor and confusion amid a babble of noise and flashing lights. The movie seemed to me little more than a clever afternoon special.
"Sharkboy and Lavagirl" concludes with yet another aphorism, this time from Max: "When we make our dreams a reality, reality becomes a dream." As with most of the film, I still didn't have a clue.
Fortunately, the disc includes two viewing formats, the movie's original 3-D and a regular 2-D version. I say "fortunately" because even though the 3-D device is supposed to be one of the film's major selling points, I found it annoying in the extreme. First, you have to put on a pair of those cardboard glasses with the two-colored eyepieces (four pairs of them come enclosed in the keep case). Well, I'm sure they're uncomfortable for anyone, but when you wear glasses as I do, it's downright painful. The things don't fit under your glasses or over them; so what is one to do? Then, you have to go through a lengthy process to set up your television properly, a procedure that requires you to readjust various of your color and contrast settings. I found my settings worked pretty well, but I doubt that I would have wanted to readjust everything just for this one movie. Finally, you're ready to watch the film in 3-D, where an on-screen message tells you when to put the glasses on and when to take them off. I found the result of all this messing around amusing for about ten seconds, and after that an awful bother. Unless I tilted my head perfectly and focused my eyes and glasses just right, I couldn't get the 3-D effect to work properly. When I did get things in line, the 3-D was fun. But was it worth it? Not really, because it began giving me a headache. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, I gave up and watched the rest of the film in its 2-D format, for which I have included the ratings below.
In regular 2-D, the picture looks fine, given Rodriguez's penchant for shooting digitally and given that trying to cram both viewing formats onto one side of one disc meant lowering the bit rate. The colors are bright and fairly well defined, if a touch glassy; and the image is vivid enough most of the time, if a tad flat with all the CGI work included.
I'm quite sure the sound reproduction is Dolby Digital 5.1 because it says so on the packaging, and it displays that way on my receiver. However, there is not a lot of indication that all five-point-one channels are in play most of the time. A few noises occasionally show up the surrounds, like the yelping of the plughounds, for instance, but mostly the sound is pretty ordinary. You'll hear some musical ambience in the rear, naturally, but it isn't much. The bass is not particularly pronounced, either, nor are the dynamics. Yet there are sound effects and music and dialogue happening all the time, so the commotion and noise should keep most children fascinated anyway.
Besides the two viewing options, 2-D and 3-D, Buena Vista offer two other major bonus items. The first is an audio commentary by director Robert Rodriguez, with occasional comments from his son Racer Max. As always, Rodriguez appears humble and relaxed as he provides a clinic on moviemaking. Still, from what I gathered, it appears that he and his fellow filmmakers made up a lot more of the film as they went along than I would have thought. There are also any number of times where Rodriguez tells us he was going for the "look" of a dream, which is also, I suppose, a convenient way of rationalizing the movie's fragmented style. The other bonus item is a seven-minute featurette, "Creating Sharkboy and Lavagirl," that plays like a home movie of Racer Max. The extras wrap up with eighteen scene selections, plus a chapter insert; English as the only available spoken language; and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D" contains plenty of bizarre creations, plenty of color, plenty of movement, and plenty of activity. In addition, it's loud; its 3-D gimmick is amusing; and its main characters are youngsters. In short, it contains all the qualities that should appeal to children.
I couldn't wait for it to end.