Be careful what you wish for.
Writer, director, producer, composer, cinematographer, and editor Robert Rodriguez is a man of no in-betweens. He either makes the most bloody, violent, adult-themed action flicks ("Desperado," "From Dusk Till Dawn," "Sin City," "Planet Terror"), or he makes children's movies ("Spy Kids 1-3," "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl"). This time out it's a children's movie, 2009's "Shorts," although the plot is so convoluted and hard to follow, you'd think he was making it for adults. Maybe he thought he was doing "Sin City" for youngsters.
Toby "Toe" Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) is an eleven or twelve-year-old boy living in the upscale neighborhood of Black Falls, Texas, a community mainly populated by employees of the Black Box Corporation. Toe's mom and dad (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) work for Black Box, a huge outfit than produces the Black Box, a small, square device that does almost everything: It's a telephone, an adding machine, a computer, a can opener, a dog groomer, a cheese grater, a megaphone, and a thousand other things. Yet the company's owner, Mr. Carbon Black (James Spader), is so greedy and so evil, he's not satisfied that it can do almost everything; he wants his executives, including Toe's parents, to make it do even more.
So, we've got our hero and we've got our villain. Naturally, the hero must be a dorky nerd, put-upon by everybody around him, in order for him to get a satisfactory revenge by the end of the movie; therefore, not only do his parents largely ignore him, but practically every soul in town picks on him: bullies, girls, teachers, his own sister (Kat Dennings), you name it.
Then, one day, Toe finds a rock. It's a magic rock, a "wishing rock." Anything you wish for, the rock instantly answers the request. Never mind what it is or where it comes from; it just is what it is. And, as you would expect, it causes more trouble than it's worth, essentially bringing grief to every person who touches it. But you knew that. How else would folks in a movie learn that friendship is worth more than gold or silver or ultimate power?
Now, here's the thing: Rodriguez has Toe narrate the story in a voice-over the way any typical kid might tell a story, with little formal structure and lots of starts and stops. Toe tells the story, as he says, "completely out of order in a series of shorts." He muddles the sequence of things to the point where we haven't much clue when or how anything happens. Toe begins with a little background on his own troubles with Mr. Black's vile son Cole (Devon Gearhart) and even viler daughter Helvetica (Jolie Vanier), who keep dumping him in garbage cans, as well as with a group of school tormentors who throw rocks at him, among other things.
Then Toe finds the wishing rock. Sort of. Because then he backs up and tells us it was really Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) and his brothers Lug (Rebel Rodriguez) and Laser (Leo Howard) who found the rock. Sort of. Because then he tells us about Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), a germ-phobic scientist working for Black Box, and his son Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) also finding the rock.
It isn't long before the story line may lose even an adult. OK, maybe it's so simple a four-year-old child could understand it. But as Groucho would say, "Run out and find me a four-year-old child; I can't make head nor tail of it." I dunno. Maybe Rodriguez thought that jumbling up the narrative sequence would be funny or something. I just found it annoying.
Jimmy Bennett does a good job as Toe, capturing not only his innocence, klutziness, and insecurities, but his perseverance, tolerance, and good nature as well. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast, though, who are generally lackluster, including old pros like Cryer, Spader, and Macy. I also wish I could say better things about the CGI special effects, which, frankly, look cheap and corny. In fairness, maybe that's the way Rodriguez wanted them to look to complement the appearance of a children's story. Still....
The fact is, "Shorts" seems like the kind of movie Rodriguez made up as he went along, and he throws everything he can think of into it that he figures might amuse a kid. Or, who knows, maybe, as he hints in one of the disc's accompanying featurettes, his own kids wrote the movie. Thus, we get a mishmash of a film featuring slapstick fights, continual chases, flying gizmos, tiny green men, galumphing alligators, mammoth wasps, prehistoric pterodactyls, goofy names (in a nod to "Harry Potter" no doubt), "Ghostbusters" and "Transformers" references, nose picking, giant booger monsters, and endless silliness.
If kids can follow "Shorts," they might enjoy it. I didn't.
Rodriguez shot the picture digitally using Panasonic Genesis cameras, and it looks it. Warners compound the issue by presenting the movie in two formats--a standard 1.33:1 ratio version and a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen version--on the same side of the DVD, both of which come across looking like compressed television broadcasts at best.
The image quality is quite flat, one dimensional, and because it's so devoid of grain, looks rather unnatural. Combine this with a fairly soft, sometimes blurry overall appearance, with colors often dull and veiled, and you get an unimpressive picture. Maybe that doesn't bother Rodriguez because he was making a children's fantasy, after all, but it seems to me that even a fantasy deserves a fair break. The more we believe in the fantasy, the better it works. Why point out it's a fantasy by making it look so artificial? Anyway, since Rodriguez shoots all his movies digitally, I suppose it's not an isolated case. I wish somebody would talk to him about it.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does what it can, but the soundtrack is so mundane, there's not much that can be done for it. I mean, there isn't much sound here to reproduce. Surprisingly, for a children's adventure, there is very little in the way of frequency range, dynamic impact, or surround activity involved, so the Dolby Digital has little to do but deal clearly with the dialogue, which it does.
There aren't many extras. First up is "Ten Minute Cooking School: Chocolate Chip Volcano Cookies," ten minutes with the director and his daughter making cookies. And then there's "Ten Minute Film School: Short Shorts," ten minutes with the director telling us how to improve our own home movies. And that's about it except for getting the two screen formats.
The extras wrap up with twenty-three scene selections; a series of trailers and promos at start-up only; access to a digital copy of the film for Windows Media only (the offer expiring on April 23, 2010); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I suppose if I were eight or ten or even twelve years old, I might enjoy "Shorts." It's got enough action, adventure, monsters, special effects, and silly horseplay to keep some young boys occupied. I doubt, however, that it would entertain most young girls, who probably have better things on their mind. In any case, I'm not eight or ten or twelve years old, and the movie's juvenile shenanigans held no interest for me. I kept thinking about how adults as well as youngsters can appreciate the best children's movies and wondering why Rodriguez didn't keep this in mind, as he did with the first "Spy Kids." Unluckily for this adult, "Shorts" is closer in substance to "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" than it is to "Spy Kids," meaning it's a pretty empty, raucous affair.
In the movie, everybody learns his lesson. It's too bad one can't say the same for Rodriguez.