NEW YORK – The basic structure of “Shorts” – advertised in its title – might make you think Robert Rodriguez has made the kids equivalent of “Pulp Fiction,” the fractured narrative classic by his buddy and frequent collaborator, Quentin Tarantino.
But Zed’s still dead, baby.
Rodriguez mashes up “Shorts,” fast-forwarding, rewinding, pausing and following tangential story lines. But the editing high jinks fail to do much for “Shorts.”
The fancy cutting doesn’t obscure that this family adventure film is essentially about a group of kids who end up with a “wishing rock,” a rainbow-coloured stone that grants the holder any wish. And as tends to happen with such things (be they oil lamps or monkey paws), trouble ensues.
Our main character and narrator is Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a bullied but undaunted kid who prides himself on his spotless braces. He’s tormented by a group led by Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier), who must be one of the few characters named for a font. Vanier plays her with a permanent Veruca Salt-esque scowl.
Thompson’s only friend seems to be Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), an eager boy who brightly spouts whatever wisdom he’s amassed in his young life and is forever imploring his two brothers to put down their video games and play outside.
They live in a neighbourhood called Black Falls, a mostly realistic but colourfully exaggerated Texas suburb. All the adults work for Black Box Industries, a corporate monolith run by Mr. Black (James Spader), a black-clad and ruthless CEO.
In one of the film’s highlights, Spader plays Black with a flip tyranny, threatening his workers in the pursuit of making the Black Box – a contraption that morphs into just about anything – to live up to “the highest standards of wow.”
Thompson’s parents are among those who work for Black. Played by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer, they fear losing their jobs at any moment and almost never put down their cellphones or laptops.
William H. Macy plays Black’s inventor, Dr. Noseworthy, who’s so paranoid of germs that he and his son never leave their airtight, spotless house.
Just about all the above characters at one point or another get their hands on the wishing rock. No one figures out the best way to use it, but one thing is clear: The kids know how to wish much better than the adults.
In “Shorts,” the parents are the ones filled with worry, obsessed with their jobs and tethered to technology. The smartest person in the movie is a baby, accidentally made sage by an errant wish.
Working on his own lot outside Austin, Texas, Rodriguez has previously made popular kids movies, most notably the “Spy Kids” trilogy. He curiously alternates between incredibly stylish, sometimes gory films (“Desperado,” “Sin City”) and kids fare.”
Rodriguez should be applauded for his intense effort to see the world from a young person’s perspective. The director (who also, as usual, serves as writer, producer, co-editor, cinematographer and composer) draws heavily from his five children; the idea of “Shorts” was dreamed up by his son, Rebel.
Because of his careful attention to his children’s ideas – as well as his self-sufficient, independent filmmaking – a good spirit pervades “Shorts.” But it becomes too cartoonish, too scattered to register much.
Somewhere around the time a giant booger runs riot through the town, one wishes for a bit more adult supervision. One and a half stars out of four.