Wish Upon a Rock
Imagination is a resource far too many family films refuse to renew. There's a major difference between creating an inventive fantasy world and coming up with random stuff as you go. Robert Rodriguez makes this mistake with his new kid-friendly opus, Shorts. Here we have a director who, when making films for grown-ups, is as stylish and no-holds-barred as they come. When it comes to children, though, Rodriguez seems more concerned with stuffing the screen with as much zany imagery as possible. Kids may have a ball watching Shorts, but to me, it's the cinematic equivalent of scarfing down a case of Twinkies, so you'd best be prepared for the massive tummyache that follows.
Shorts takes place in the quirk-laden community of Black Falls. The entire town is pretty much ruled by Mr. Black (James Spader), a gadget mogul who's taken a few cues from the pages of Corporate Monolith Weekly. But even with siblings engaged in a perpetual staring contest and a family of germophobes, Black Falls will get a whole lot weirder when a rock with special powers plummets from the sky. The rainbow-colored rubble can grant its possessor any wish of their choosing. Of course, havoc is wreaked once the town's middle-schoolers get ahold of the rock, used by the likes of Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) and Loogie Short (Trevor Gagnon) to get back at bullies and pal up with space aliens. Unfortunately, Mr. Black gets wind of the special stone and sets about claiming it for himself, leaving it up to the kids of Black Falls to prevent him from fulfilling his dastardly plans.
After the swing and a miss that was Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Shorts at least gets Rodriguez to first base. With its offbeat visuals and zippy pace, it's close in spirit to the Spy Kids flicks. Shorts, however, operates on a more spontaneous wavelength, which I suppose makes sense. After all, a kid's mind runs at a mile a minute, and with a device that can make your most random whim a reality, all bets are off. Still, it's at this point where directors run the risk of using "anything goes" as an excuse one too many times, and Rodriguez is no exception. Shorts looks somewhat like a living cartoon, and its lack of overall structure proves to be a hindrance. It's cute seeing little green men make dinners to embarrass Bobby Flay, but come the last act, Rodriguez throws everything he's got onto the screen, hoping desperately that something works.
Shorts exemplifies the sort of movie that's probably a bigger blast to make than to watch. Most cast members appear to be firing on all cylinders. Bennett (Star Trek) does spirited work as young Toe (one of many characters named after body parts/functions), and Jolie Vanier is enough of a bullying brat to put Veruca Salt to shame. It's also fun seeing more dramatic performers like Spader and William H. Macy loosen up without compromising their dignity. Too bad Shorts comes across as so overwhelming. Even the kids at the screening I attended got a little restless the longer the movie wore on. And the vague, bargain basement moral Rodriguez leaves behind hardly compensates for the assault waged on your eyeballs.
Stacked up against other kiddie contenders this year, Shorts is no Coraline, though there's a great deal more thought put into it than found in G-Force. On any other day, I'd recommend scouring your local video palace for more intelligent offerings for your little ones. But with school looming on the horizon, Shorts does succeed in giving this summer a hyperkinetic send off.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG" for mild action and some rude humor.)