In the past few weeks, audiences have seen movies that remind them what it's like to be a kid (G.I. Joe), and ones that make them feel like kids (Ponyo). This week, it seems only fair that they get one that not only stars kids but is actually made for them, too: Shorts.
After his foray into Grindhouse cinema and, of course, his series of inconsistent efforts in family entertainment via the Spy Kids and Sharkboy and Lavagirl movies, Robert Rodriguez has engineered another fantasy aimed squarely at preteens, giving them an inventive, fun equivalent of Pulp Fiction, even if their parents would probably be better off in the theater next door watching Inglourious Basterds.
The film stars Jimmy Bennett (previously seen as an unlucky sibling in Orphan) as Toe Thompson, the main character and narrator of this fractured fairy tale. Although he remembers the chronology of events in disjointed order, he nevertheless tells the story of a small town where a rainbow-colored rock causes a big mess: After several of the kids discover that the multi-colored talisman grants wishes, they immediately start indulging their wildest fantasies.
While this initially means modest demands like pants pockets that eject candy bars on command, soon their ambitions grow to include moats and alligators and snakes, telephonesis (not to be confused with telekinesis) and, eventually, all-powerful intelligence—although the only one who gets it is a baby sister. Meanwhile, the town's grownups inadvertently get in on the wishing action, only to find that their boss, Carbon Black (James Spader), has more sinister plans for the rock's powers—namely to make himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, or, in lieu of that, big and powerful enough to take whatever it is that he wants.
Notwithstanding the eyestrain of Sharkboy's too-ambitious-by-half 3-D adventure, what works best about Rodriguez' family films is their simplicity, and their sincerity: Rather than knowingly winking at grownups while he mines the spectacle of kid-friendly imagination, the director fully indulges and embraces the excitement kids get from making up weird and unpredictable scenarios, and then conveys that feeling through his young characters with genuineness and energy.
While to grownups that kind of silly randomness might be unappealing, it's precisely this kind of manic abandon that keeps the film entertaining, especially when many of its best effects are the ones that are lowest-tech. (Seriously—filming a baby and having someone "dub" her voice—without bothering to digitally manipulate her mouth—is among the funniest things I've seen in a movie this year.)
After spending the majority of his last film paralyzed with fear, Bennett makes a terrific Everykid as Toe, embracing the wild possibilities of the rainbow rock only to have his lack of maturity—and, perhaps more importantly, the caveat be careful what you wish for, because you may get it—turn his fantasies into funny nightmares. Meanwhile, the rest of the 'tween cast also does a great job being big, broad and silly, especially Jolie Vanier, who gives a cute Wednesday Addams-lite performance as Helvetica Black, Toe's nemesis-cum-love interest.
And the adults do a good job getting in on the action as well, particularly Spader as the corporate majordomo, Mr. Black, but solid performances by Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer and William H. Macy cement the kids' over-the-top characterizations, especially when they're unexpected beneficiaries of the wishing rock's hilariously twisted whim; I'm still not exactly sure how Cryer and Mann were able to successfully merge their bodies (it only halfway looks like CGI), but with a booger monster bearing down on Macy and the kids alike, it takes a certain kind of actor to embrace the level of abandon required to make something really gross that real, or at least "real."
Overall, the only vaguely confusing or problematic thing about Shorts is its structure, which leapfrogs from one point in its story to another without much warning; but then again, Rodriguez seems to be indulging his own inner child as much as he is the actual ones in his potential audience, by pretending to make a series of short films rather than one story that otherwise would be a straightforward sort of family film.
In other words, while adults certainly won't mind watching it, Shorts is a movie made almost exclusively for kids, which will be just fine for them. Because while grownups struggle to remember what it was like to pretend and imagine without the weight of the world confining our fantasies, or wax nostalgic about our own childhoods, they'll simply be celebrating theirs—and best of all, watching it unfold, albeit with a little bit more CGI, up on the silver screen.