I don’t think I ever thought I would say this – nor will I likely ever say it again – but I was fortunate enough to see Robert Rodriguez’s new children’s film Shorts at a press screening that was also probably half-filled with children. I actually was dreading the screening coming in for that reason, but then realized it was incredibly valuable since, well, I’m 32 years old and this film shoots at a demographic a couple of decades younger than me and, instead of sitting in a tiny screening room with adult critics, I saw it with a bunch of adult critics and a bunch of kids where I could see how they reacted to the film. While Shorts did get plenty of laughs from the tykes in attendance, it wasn’t quite as many as I expected in this semi-entertaining film.
Shorts is actually a film told in a series of shorts, structured in an even more random variant of Memento, as we’re zipped forward and backward through this story of the incredible things that happened in the community of Black Falls. The entire community revolves around Black Box Industries, which produces the do-it-all device Black Box, which transforms from a cell phone/PDA to any number of devices like a baby monitor, can opener and hundreds of other applications. Every adult in the town works for the company, headed up by Mr. Black (James Spader), and the parents are more focused on their work than their own families. But, of course, the film doesn’t focus on the parents but the children of Black Falls, particularly Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), an 11-year-old who is the constant attention of the resident bully Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier, in her feature film debut), the ruthless daughter of Mr. Black. One day, young Toe and his friend Lug (Rebel Rodriguez, Robert’s son) find this rainbow-colored wishing rock, which grants anything the owner of the rock wishes for. As the rock makes its way throughout the children of the town – and eventually the adults – it’s clear the town of Black Falls will never be the same.
The film, like most of Rodriguez’s kids films, started with a suggestion by one of writer-director-everything Robert Rodriguez’s (he also serves as the producer, cinematographer, editor and composer… in ALL of his films) children, Rebel, and the way the kids would show their dad something on DVR, fast forwarding and rewinding to the good parts. It does work in a very peculiar way, though, as the whole story told through these separately-titled shorts, comes together very nicely at the end. While the structure might be bothersome for adults who want a cohesive through-line, this really does seem like an innovative way to capture the miniscule attention spans of today’s youth, with interconnected but out-of-order short episodes that all make sense once the credits roll. When it comes to the content of these episodes, that’s when this film shoots way below my age range.
I found myself mildly amused at all the absurd things that happen and are wished for, but I was really using the kids in attendance as my guide here. There were things that I thought would get a booming response from the children that didn’t, but there were plenty more that did. Still, as far as myself, these stories are kind of cute, but the kiddie-shock-factor of seeing a tiny booger come to life as a big slime monster or a kid that has a telephone receiver attached to his head, just doesn’t have the same spark for me now, although Rodriguez’s realization of such childhood excursions like a giant fortress coming out of the ground and many more, are kind of cool to watch.
While I can’t totally appreciate the content here, I can appreciate the talented cast Rodriguez has put forth for his new kiddie adventure. On the kids side, Jimmy Bennett does a fine job as the bullied-yet-confident Toe Thompson, a kid who is wise beyond his years by knowing that the bullying of Jolie Vanier’s Helvetica Black really means that she digs him. Vanier does a great job as well in her feature film debut as Helvetica, and I imagine we’ll be seeing much more from this young lady throughout the years. Rebel Rodriguez does a good job as Lug, Trevor Gagnon and Leo Howard are fine as Lug’s brothers Loogie and Laser and Jake Short is fun to watch as Nose Noseworthy, a child whose father, played by William H. Macy, has sealed him off in a germ-free environment and is paranoid about germs entering his domain. On the adult side, Macy is perfect as the senior Noseworthy, a paranoid germophobe, Kat Dennings is her usual charming self as Toe’s older sister and Nose’s tutor Stacey, Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer are terrific as Toe’s and Stacey’s parents (literally just credited as Mom and Dad Thompson) and James Spader gives a wonderfully devious performance as the nefarious Mr. Black.
You really have to hand it to filmmaker Robert Rodriguez for his ability not only to control every key aspect of a film behind the camera (writing, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, composing) on every film he does, but to also be able to switch from such wonderful adult fare like Sin City and Planet Terror to children’s fare like this for, essentially, every other movie he does. Since his kids come up with the basic ideas for his kids flicks, I wonder how long it will be before we see a film by Rebel, Racer, Rocket, Rogue or Rhiannon Rodriguez. Yes, those are really his kids names. How awesome is that? It certainly beats Apple… Anyway, Rodriguez does a fine job in every asset of this production, bringing these crazy creations to life and structuring this story rather brilliantly.
If you’re a 32-year-old single guy with no kids, I doubt Shorts would be something up your alley. However, if you have a younger child or a niece or a nephew, a trip to the theater to see Shorts would be right up that alley.