Movie Review: Shorts
For a filmmaker who’s known for making ultra-violent genre fare, Robert Rodriguez has never failed to balance his cinematic machismo with his softer, more kid-friendly role as a father, taking time out between bloodbaths to create something for both his family and ours. Shorts is perhaps Rodriguez’s best and most inspired young-adult film since the original Spy Kids. Whether this is faint praise or a legitimate compliment is entirely up to your taste, and quite possibly your age, but there’s little doubt that this sci-fi fairy tale is the perfect piece of back-to-school entertainment for children and their young-at-heart parents.
The set-up is relatively simple. A magical wishing rock falls into the center of a residential community built around a super-advanced technology company responsible for the creation of the “black box,” a device which can become, essentially, any other electronic device you need it to be. In an interconnecting series of – you guessed it — shorts, Rodriguez spotlights four groups of neighbors whose wishes produce what one might best describe as shenanigans.
The first follows young Toe Thompson – ignored by his distant, work-addicted parents and bullied by the daughter of his parents’ boss, Helvetica Black – as he wishes for friends who appear as troublesome, super-powered, miniature alien spacecraft. The second story follows a group of three children whose wishes create walking alligators, giant pterodactyls, venomous snakes and one incredibly smart, telepathic baby. The third chapter focuses on super-scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), his son and the family tutor (Toe’s sister Stacey, played here by Kat Dennings), as young “Nose” Noseworthy accidently mutates a booger into a giant, flesh-eating monster. The fourth section finds Toe’s parents wishing to be closer and suddenly being joined, quite literally, at the hip. The fifth and final chapter illustrates how all the madness comes together as the company’s CEO, Cole Black, wishes himself into a massive, unstoppable, all-powerful robot.
The real success of the film is in the tone it strikes. It’s colorful, but not overly cartoonish; it’s good, silly fun, but it never panders; it’s aimed at children, yet it has enough maturity to entertain the adults. It is, in a sense, the kind of bed-time story a parent might make up with their children, incorporating the enthusiastic suggestions shouted from beneath the covers. The presentation of the film as a set of short movies is fun and inspired – and certainly on DVD kids will watch and re-watch their favorite chapters – but it’s not, critically speaking, entirely necessary. Shifting around the timeline and showing how one event leads up to something you’ve already seen is a clever invention, but the story never really gains anything from the structure. That said, given the film in question, if an idea is fun, it has a place here within the craziness, regardless of the questions or criticisms that might apply to more straightforward movies.
Rodriguez doesn’t really flex the visual style here that we’ve seen in his higher-budget productions, but he manages a narrative and tonal juggling act that’s no less impressive for the film’s being aimed at younger audiences. The effects are surprisingly well rendered and while, for this critic, the booger-monster seemed a bit sillier than the rest of the film, each of the wild creations – from walking reptiles to five-story mechanical behemoths – look relatively respectable.
Overall, when a critic can see a film that’s meant for children in a child-less room filled with fellow film critics and still have a good time, that’s absolutely a credit to the filmmaker and his cast. Adults will no doubt be forced to find their inner child to enjoy the movie, but one wouldn’t suppose they’d be flocking to theatres without children of their own – children who will no doubt have a blast making their way through Shorts.