11-year-old Toe Thompson is the designated punching bag for the teenaged bullies of the suburban community of Black Falls, where his and everyone else's parents work for Black Box Industries, makers of the do-it-all gadget that's sweeping the nation. But during a freak storm, a mysterious Rainbow Rock, which grants wishes to anyone who finds it, falls from the sky. Suddenly, the neighborhood is after Toe's magic rock so they can wish for world domination. Toe must risk it all so he can stop the grown ups from taking the stone and carrying out world domination with the help of some kids and a cigar smoking baby names Ted.
Maverick director Robert Rodriguez has carved out a very peculiar little niche for himself in modern Hollywood.
He is a revered action film director and has been since his no-budget indie El Mariachi (remade as Desperado) rocked the festival circuit in 1992. Over the years he has developed a cult following with: his wham-bam horror flicks From Dusk til Dawn (1996) and The Faculty (1998); a third Mariachi film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003); the stunning, violent artistry of Sin City (2005); and his contribution to the ambitious-but-flawed Grindhouse experiment, Planet Terror (2007).
Then there is the other Robert Rodriguez – the one who fancies himself as a modern-day Walt Disney, who makes films from storylines devised by his children (it’s irrelevant, but check out their names: Rocket, Rebel, Racer and Rogue). He scored big with the first, mildly-enjoyable Spy Kids (2001), then made two horrible sequels before he unleashed one of the most God-awful family films of the last decade: The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005).
With Shorts, Rodriguez again delves into all-age entertainment. It is a wildly self-indulgent fantasy adventure that should have gone straight to Youtube, where all 'Dad-thinks-he’s-cool-with-a-camera’ home videos belong. If nothing else, it should be mandatory viewing for promiscuous teens: if they are taught early enough that having a family means watching stuff like this, it may herald in a new era of abstinence.
We are introduced early on to Toby 'Toe’ Thompson, a nerdy friendless nobody played by 'ranga Jimmy Bennett, whose hamminess and shrill voice call to mind Rodney Dangerfield’s line in Caddyshack: 'Now I know why tigers eat their young". Toe finds a rainbow-coloured 'wishing rock’, a magical stone that promises to liven up his boring existence within the dreary gated community of Black Falls. Toe’s inattentive parents (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) – and indeed, all residents of Black Falls – are employees of the Black Box Corporation, which is owned and operated by an evil overlord, Mr. Black (James Spader).
With stone in hand, Toe and his friends Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez, no doubt working for scale in Dad’s latest film) and Laser (Leo Howard) attempt to reunite family (including last year’s It-girl, Kat Denning, as his big sister Stacey) and destroy Black Box’s greedy expansion plans. Their methods include conjuring upright-alligators, giant wasps, and tiny alien friends (in a rather shameless piece of plagiarism from Matthew Robbins’ *batteries not included, 1987).
In a nod to the new generation of gamers and remote-control addicts, the story unfolds in fast-forward/rewind flashbacks; the non-linear device will confuse kids and give parents the poops. This ill-conceived gimmick deprives the film of a coherence and tension.
Rodriguez boasts of his kids films being borne out of the fantastical bedtime storytelling sessions he and his wife (the film’s co-writer, Alvaro) indulge in to settle their brood, and Shorts feels like it – there are lots of 'Oh no! Walking crocodiles!", 'Wow! A booger monster!" and 'We need a lift home... cool, a Pterodactyl!" moments. These flashes-of-inspiration might work when settling Rocket, Rebel, Racer and Rogue, but as film devices they are stupid, obvious and convenient.
It all whirls by at such a frantic pace, one is never left to savour the few elements that do work – Mann and Cryer’s physical comedy during the’ conjoined parents’ sequence (they had wished that they could be closer....) or the Christina Ricci-esque presence of Jolie Vanier as the love interest, Helvetica (she’s worth watching out for in better films).
The burden of responsibility for this forgettable film lies with Robert Rodriguez and his Troublemaker film company (he gives himself 10 mentions in the closing credit crawl, for God’s sake!). The Texan filmmaker has created the sort of movie that parents rent for a slumber party then plays unnoticed in the background as the sleep-over buddies rapidly lose interest and make their own fun.