Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Leslie Mann, John Cryer, James Spader, William H. Macy
In 1990—two years before he burst onto the filmmaking scene with his low-budget actioner El Mariachi—Robert Rodriguez made a short film called Bedhead. Shot in his backyard with the help of his family, the short centers around a young girl who terrorizes her slovenly older brother with newfound psychic powers.
Nearly two decades later, after a lot of adult-oriented—and very R-rated—fare and a handful of family films (including the fantastic Spy Kids (2001)), Rodriguez has finally made what can best be called an extension of Bedhead. His latest flick for kids, Shorts, carries the same sense of preteen empowerment and supernatural adventure, while still being—since it was shot in and around Rodriguez’s home—a homegrown, low-budget, family-made affair (the concept for the film was thought up by Rodriguez’s son Rebel, who also makes an appearance in the movie, along with his siblings Racer, Rocket and Bianca).
The movie is presented as a series of interconnected short films (Rodriguez has said in interviews that this is his take on Hal Roach, complete with Our Gang-styled title cards). Each follows a group of kids and their misadventures with a magical wishing rock that suddenly shows up in their quaint suburban neighborhood. Narrated by awkward, braces-sporting social misfit “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett, Star Trek), Shorts jumps around out of order from short to short, as Toe pauses and fast-forwards through the action to get to the best parts.
Even though these are kids in possession of a rainbow-colored wishing rock, their enthusiasm causes nothing to go quite right—from the accidental creation of booger monsters, to bipedal alligators, to a creepy, psychic infant (think Alia Atreides from Dune). There are also, of course, various nefarious forces to contend with—such as the Steve Jobs-like gadget-making megalomaniac Mr. Black (James Spader) and his daughter Helvetica (newcomer Jolie Vanier), who even gets her own snazzy theme song. But in classic Rodriguez fashion—and in the vein of his Spy Kids flicks—the bad guys aren’t really all that bad, just mostly misunderstood.
The same heart—borne out of the feeling that Rodriguez genuinely likes kids—and the imagination that was on display in Spy Kids shows up here, and the low-budget feel of the film suits the guerilla-filmmaking style that the director cut his teeth on. The best bits and pieces are when Rodriguez goes for a lo-fi feel, using editing techniques and stop-motion effects. Unfortunately, the film falters when CGI is introduced, attempting to give a bigger budget and Hollywood feel to a movie that just doesn’t have the cash to support it, let alone the need. Aside from the computer effects simply being shoddy, they also betray the movie’s homemade feel.
No, Shorts never approaches the purely entertaining greatness of the first two Spy Kids movies, lacking a lot of the surprise, simple charm and outstanding production design. However, that being said, it’s a tough standard to live up to, since few people have made kids movies that good to begin with. This doesn’t keep Shorts from being its own nice—albeit flawed—piece of family entertainment. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.