Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Jimmy Bennett, Jon Cryer, William H. Macy, Leslie Mann, James Spader, Kat Dennings, Jolie Vanier, Trevor Gagnon, Devon Gearhart, Leo Howard, Rebel Rodriguez. (2009, PG, 89 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 21, 2009
This time around it’s another family film for Rodriguez, whose filmmaking career at this point has two modes: kid pics and grisly adult fare. All are comedic action romps highlighted by their homegrown flavor of technological wizardry and Rodriguez’s near-total creative control. (In Shorts, Rodriguez is listed as the film’s writer, director, co-producer, cinematographer, co-editor, and contributing music composer.) Additionally, the kid-oriented films are usually family outings. Here, son Rebel Rodriguez supplied many of the film’s ideas, as did son Racer for 2005’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D. A look through the cast and crew list will find several other members of the extended Rodriguez family peppered among its ranks. Filmmaking has turned into a family business for this father of five (from a family of 10 siblings), and that’s a good thing in his kid pics because Rodriguez really does seem to have a direct line into what makes the little rascals laugh and relate. In Shorts, that includes a booger monster, crocodiles running upright, plastic-encased germophobes, and more. The moral lesson is no more complicated than “be careful what you wish for.” The story belongs completely to the kids, with the adult talent all capably doing their thing while letting the spotlight shine primarily on their young castmates. There are also some cultural gibes at our ever-growing dependence on impersonal technological gadgets featuring applications designed to master every aspect of life while dampening our native creativity and imagination. The suburban setting of Black Falls is a company town where everyone’s family works for Black Box Industries, the makers of the ubiquitous gadgets that have an endless array of functions and shape-shifting abilities (something like Transformers). The story follows tweener Toe (Bennett), who finds a multicolored stone that can grant every wish – a wishing rock that creates havoc as it passes from hand to hand. The story structure is kiddie postmodern, as the film cuts forward and backward in chapters as events rewind or fast-forward as though controlled by a digital switch (hence the title Shorts). The action never pauses long enough to become tiresome, though most of the film’s rude humor is directed squarely at young viewers’ sensibilities. (None of that Pixar kind of humor that appeals to kids on one level and adults on another for Rodriguez.) Vanier makes a stunning film debut as Toe’s nemesis, Helvetica Black, a Veruca Salt type of spoiled rich girl who stuffs Toe into garbage cans. Rodriguez’s technical wizardry is less showy here than in his other recent outings, which helps Shorts connect with kids on a basic human level. Parents will, no doubt, be renting this electronic babysitter for a long time to come.