Screenwriters: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jake Short, Leslie Mann, Kat Dennings, Jon Cryer, James Spader, William H. Macy
Running time: 89 mins
There are few top-tier Hollywood filmmakers quite as schizophrenic as Robert Rodriguez. For all his macho swagger action flicks and B-movie throwbacks, there are the polar opposite tween adventure romps he makes for his family. What unifies this disparate work, though, is a lack of maturity - Sin City's guns-a-blazin' thrills are just as silly as the Spy Kids movies. The perpetually adolescent Rodriguez embraces flashy kineticism over emotional enrichment with varied results, and Shorts is maybe his most callow work yet.
Using the same vignette structure that served him well on Sin City, Rodriguez interweaves stories of kids in a sleepy Texas suburb encountering a colourful space rock that grants them their every wish. The Thompson clan anchor the story, with Toe (Bennett) the bullied youngster who finds friendship and acceptance through the magical stone. Kat Dennings, Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer make up the rest of the family, as the big sister with boyfriend trouble and the parents who barely talk to each other. Antagonism comes from the Black family, whose power-hungry patriarch (Spader) owns a corporation that created the Black Box, a high-tech mobile device that makes the iPhone look like an abacus.
The best children's films usually centre on an awkward misfit with fears about the big wide world and without a place to belong (E.T., The Iron Giant), or breezy good vs. evil tales emphasising youthful camaraderie (The Goonies). Shorts shoots for the best of both worlds but any message it's trying to impart is diluted amid the frenzy. In one of its quieter moments, a character proclaims: "I'm bored of video games, I'm tired of TV." Shorts is entertainment designed for that particular youngster - a broad ADD adventure that can't keep still, hopping impatiently from one madcap sequence to the next. What it desperately needs is a dose of Ritalin.
It's not the fact Shorts doesn't trust its audience to have patience that's the only frustration, Rodriguez can't even get easy things like visual effects right. Everything is slightly unpolished and creatures such as the giant snot monster and crocodiles walking on their hind legs don't quite blend into their surroundings. The gee-whizz gurning from the child actors and ham-fisted turns from the more seasoned performers all add to the cheap and desperate feel. Spader is the chief culprit, unleashing a full-tilt impersonation of his Boston Legal co-star William Shatner.
Buried beneath Shorts's fidgety tedium is a vaguely interesting segment about the Thompson parents ditching their Black Boxes and trying to make their relationship work (aptly titled "Miss Communication") and a staring contest between two siblings that becomes increasingly extravagant. That said, Shorts is too lazy and telegraphed to be classed as a good children's film and not smart enough to keep grown-ups engaged for its duration. Rodriguez uses his mystical rock to conjure up a few imaginative set-pieces, but his storytelling is anything but original.
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