Warner Bros. // 2009 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 23rd, 2009
Not-so-tall-tales from the director of Spy Kids!
"What did I tell you about picking your nose?"
Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett, Star Trek) is a kid who doesn't have many friends, is constantly picked on at school, and doesn't feel that anyone understands him. His mom (Leslie Mann, Funny People) and dad (Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men) are both employees of a large corporation run by the villainous Mr. Black (James Spader, Stargate), who is considering firing Mr. and Mrs. Thompson in the very near future. Toe's sister (Kat Dennings, The Answer Man) is having boyfriend troubles. Basically, things are looking bad for the entire family. But when Toe finds a mysterious "wishing rock," things take a turn for the better...or at least for the unusual. Will Toe be able to use his newfound tool to beat the bad guys, make new friends and solve all of his problems?
Look, I realize that Robert Rodriguez makes movies like Shorts for his kids, but I do sincerely wish that he'd either stop making these films or that he'd make better ones. Ever since the moderately entertaining Spy Kids, Rodriguez's family films have somehow gotten progressively worse (there's a reason that every family film he's made since is "from the director of Spy Kids," not from "the director of The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl"). Shorts continues that trend, offering a groan-worthy collection of PG-rated gross-out gags and horrible performances, from an ironically unimaginative screenplay.
Shorts is intentionally episodic in nature, as protagonist Toe Thompson tells his story via non-linear vignettes. Each segment focuses on a different series of wishes made with the wishing rock, and the many wacky hijinks that ensue as a result. The worst of these is a particularly nasty section about boogers, in which a young child who constantly picks his nose is forced to see one of his boogers turn into a giant booger monster. You also get stories about two grown-ups who get permanently stuck to each other's bodies (not as dirty as it sounds), three boys who build a castle and are forced to fight off alligators and rattlesnakes (not half as exciting as it sounds), and a kid who makes friends with a group of tiny aliens from outer space (much less interesting than it sounds). It all ends with a great big extravaganza called "Everybody in The End" in which everyone and everything from the film engages in a chaotic battle. These tales are presented in a strained, over-the-top manner that make them feel like the work of an amateur despite the expensive special effects on display.
The film is essentially a list of "things loved by pre-adolescent boys" compiled into a messy feature film. In addition to the aforementioned boogers, crocodiles, and aliens, you get superpowers, lots of fart noises, giant robots, lots of things getting smashed, and a general distrust of girls. I suppose it's entirely possible (if unlikely) that a good film could be crafted from these elements, but Shorts isn't it. The scenes of humor are forced and unfunny, the scenes of action assume that simply throwing a variety of special effects on the screen qualifies as a thrill, and the scenes of drama are laughably thin and unconvincing.
All of the performances struggle to reach anything even approaching credibility. Lead Jimmy Bennett sounds as if he's offering line readings most of the time, while Jolie Vanier simply doesn't seem threatening enough in her role as the school bully Helvetica (a wonderful name, I must admit). The adults are perhaps even more disappointing, given the level of talent in the film. I hoped James Spader might have fun with his villainous role, but he looks like he'd rather be getting his teeth pulled. His flat, dull turn is a big disappointment, but then the script doesn't really give him anything too fun to do, anyway. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more stereotypical villain: his name is Mr. Black, he runs a company called "Black Inc." where he forces all of his employees wear black at all times and to be on-call 24 hours a day. He also has a tendency to fire people at random, just to keep everyone in line. William H. Macy also disappoints in his frenzied turn as a man absolutely paranoid of germs, while Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer exhibit little enthusiasm for their roles as Toe's parents.
The hi-def transfer looks quite stellar, offering the vibrant and colorful image clarity and depth. The movie certainly boasts a bright color palette, often resembling nothing quite so much as a bag of skittles. The lively imagery really pops off the screen, undoubtedly moreso than it did in theatres during its 3-D presentation (where the colorful images were somewhat muted by the dark glasses). The level of background detail is excellent, and facial detail is perfectly adequate. The darker scenes (what few of them there are) benefit from stellar shading. The audio is solid, but I must confess the both the music and sound design grated on my nerves a great deal. The former is an extremely derivative hack job co-written by Rodriguez, Carl Thiel and George Oldziey, which rips liberally from any number of action/comedy film scores (particularly Beetlejuice, which seems to be a popular choice in general for unimaginative composers). The sound design also loves to insert wacky sound effects at random, not only fart noises but also honking horns, bouncing springs, etc. Blech. Even so, it all comes through with strength and clarity.
The supplements include standard EPK-style making-of piece called "The Magic of Shorts" (in which Rodriguez explains how all of his special effects were achieved), "Ten-Minute Cooking School" (in which Rodriguez teaches us how to make chocolate chip cookies), "Ten Minute Film School: Short Shorts" (in which Rodriguez talks about making home movies with his kids), and "Shorts: Show and Tell" (which is basically a montage of the kids laughing and having a good time on-set). You also get a digital copy of the film.
Again, if you're 8 years old, this film will probably work for you on a surface level. Not that you're used to understanding many films beyond the surface level at this point if you're in that age category, anyway.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Digital Copy