There are, in general, two kinds of Robert Rodriguez films. First there are the rather pulpy and sometimes nihilistic films for grown-ups, full of R-rated sex and violence: films like From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City and Planet Terror. And then there are the kids' movies, full of imagination and bizarre plot twists that feel like the sort of thing a child might have made up if he or she were improvising a story for their friends: films like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl.
Shorts is the second kind of film, and if it doesn't quite rise to the heights of the original Spy Kids, it at least demonstrates that Rodriguez is still in touch with his inner child—and that he still knows how to tell a story that feels like it could have been written by his own children, a few of whom actually have small parts in the film.
The film, which is divided into several short chapters—hence the title—gets off to a great start with an episode about two kids known only as "the Blinkers." A brother (Cambell Westmoreland) and a sister (Zoe Webb) dare each other to a staring contest, and they proceed to spend the next few hours, if not days, staring into each other's eyes without blinking once: whether they are catching the bus, sitting in class, or even playing video games, the two siblings never break eye contact, as each of them waits for the other to blink first.
The concept is simplicity itself, and, except for the exaggerated duration of the contest, it is not that far removed from what real kids do all the time. After this, however, the movie gets a bit more complicated—and Rodriguez mixes things up a bit, literally, by arranging the episodes slightly out of order, though for no particularly obvious reason.
The bulk of the film revolves around Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), an 11-year-old who doesn't really have any friends but does, somehow, have a few enemies, in the form of Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her big brother Cole (Devon Gearheart). When Toe tries to convince Helvetica that the reason she's been picking on him is because, deep down, she loves him, that just makes her mad, with predictably negative results.
At one point, Cole and his friends start throwing rocks at Toe—and one of these stones just happens to be a magic wishing rock covered in the colors of the rainbow. When someone holds the rock and says the words "I wish," whatever it is that the person wished for soon comes to life—though not necessarily in the way you might expect. For example, when Toe wishes he had some friends, he is soon visited not by other kids his age, but by tiny aliens who travel in a flying saucer that is roughly the same size as, well, a saucer.
Toe soon meets other kids who have already come into contact with the wishing rock, or are about to. Chief among these are Loogie Short (Trevor Gagnon)—who, upon wishing that either he or one his siblings would be really smart, discovers that it is his baby sister who has suddenly developed super-intelligence—and Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short), whose father (William H. Macy) is a germaphobic scientist who has covered their house in plastic.
The things brought to life by the wishing stone are suitably strange and amusingly childlike, from a fortress that rises out of the ground to a bunch of crocodiles that start walking on their hind legs—though the wishes the children make sometimes defy logic. Faced with a monster or some other problem, the children never simply wish for it to vanish or undo itself; instead, they tend to wish, say, that they were giant insects and fighting that problem the hard way. In a few cases, the wishes-come-true are also kind of gross, not least when the children are pursued through one of their homes by a giant booger monster.
Still, every now and then there is a gag like the one in which Loogie wishes he had telekinesis (the ability to move things with his mind), but he accidentally pronounces the word "telephonesis," thus causing a telephone to sprout from the left and right sides of his head: it's a delightful moment, not only because you can believe a kid would really make that kind of verbal mistake, but also because Loogie realizes he kind of likes the, uh, headset, and even though it looks rather odd, he doesn't want to wish it away just yet.
It isn't just the kids who see their wishes come true, and in ways they don't necessarily like. At one point, Toe's mother (Leslie Mann) wishes that she and Toe's father (Jon Cryer) could spend more time together—and suddenly, just like that, the bodies of Toe's parents are fused together so that they essentially look like a two-headed person. If memory serves, this leads to a joke about one spouse being the other's "better half," but in any case, it's a strikingly literalistic depiction of what it might mean to become "one flesh."
Things don't really take a turn for the worse, though, until the wishing stone falls into the hands of Carbon Black (James Spader), the man who is both father to the bullies Cole and Helvetica and owner of the business that Toe's parents work for. (He may even own the town in which they all live, which goes by the name Black Falls.) Black's company makes a device known as the "black box" which can turn into anything its owner wishes for—it's like a cross between an iPhone and a Transformer, in which all the apps assume physical form—and the wishing stone would obviously give him just that much more power.
There is, if you like, a parallel to be drawn here. Both the wishing stone and the "black box" have the power to give their owners anything they want—one through magic, the other through technology—but the wishes don't always come true the way you expect them to. This may be a sly critique of the way our modern-day gadgets often let us down, but it also leads one character to declare that people should make a point of wishing for things only when they are worth wishing for.
So while the story may get increasingly silly and chaotic, like a make-it-up-as-you-go tale told by kids, it does manage to articulate an important lesson or two. And that helps to make Shorts a decent, though not great, afternoon at the movies for the young and the young at heart.Discussion starters
- How are the wishing stone and the "black box" similar to each other? How are they different?
- Do we wish for too many things? How should we know when we are asking for too much? What do you make of the one character's line that we should be sure that what we are wishing for is worth wishing for?
- Similarly, how do you decide what to pray for? Do some things seem too "trivial" to take to God in prayer? Do we just talk to God about the "important" stuff? Our needs? Our wishes?
- One character says, "It doesn't matter who your parents are. All that matters is who you are and you want to be." Do you agree? How does "wanting to be" something tie into the movie's theme of wishing for things, some of which you don't really need?
- What does the film say about family relationships, between spouses or between parents and children? What did you think of the scene where Toe's parents are magically joined together in one body and literally become "one flesh"?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Shorts is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor (a boy is covered in gunk after he emerges from a crocodile's mouth, some kids are chased by a giant booger monster, etc.). The kids at the screening attended by CT Movies were also apparently a little grossed out by a scene in which a girl whose arms are in a cast feeds herself with her feet.
Photos © Warner Brothers
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