If you’ve seen any of the Spy Kids movies, you already know that director Robert Rodriguez has a knack for making frenetic kids films that have extraordinary, wacky special effects, all harnessed — often loosely — into telling a story that’s exciting and a bit goofy. There’s a certain glossy sheen to his films, an extruded plastic sort of sense that’s uniquely his, and it’s delightful when it’s not too far over the top.
His new film Shorts is definitely cut from the same cloth as Spy Kids. It’s a frantically paced whirlwind of a movie where the narrative bounces around and the actors look like they’re having just as much fun in their crazy universe as we are watching it. And it’s hilarious. There were so many jokes, play on words, visual gags and more jammed into its brief 89 minutes that it was easily one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.
The story is set in Black Falls, Texas, a small town that’s dominated by Black Box Unlimited, a company that sells a gizmo that can transform itself into just about anything you might desire, from a cellphone to a dog groomer, can opener to a music player. It comes in three sizes: Super Grande, Grande, and Niño, and its primary competitors are the Purple Pyramid and the Silver Cylinder.
The company is run by the evil Mr. Black (James Spader) who relishes his power and control, all the while trying to motivate employees to create the ultimate Black Box, version “X”, that will do everything and be owned by every single person on the planet. Black has two children, the fabulously named Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her older brother Cole Black (Devon Gearhart), and they’re the bullies of the local school, particularly relishing the chance to pick on new-kid-in-town Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), whose parents run the main development teams at the firm.
But the storyline is almost just an excuse to weave together a series of funny and often quite astonishing special effects and visual effects that combine to make Shorts a rollercoaster of a fun ride for children and adults alike.
The film is told in a series of chapters with whimsical names, and it starts right out with a brilliant bit “Episode Zero: The Blinkers”, about siblings (Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb) who engage in an epic staring contest that lasts days. Then the movie titles start and you figure “ah, okay, that was a cute little vignette”, but in fact the Blinker kids appear time and again throughout Shorts, often in the most hilarious ways.
That’s very much the spirit of the entire film too. It’s a whirling blender of jokes and gags, even to the names of the children in the film: Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) and the brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez) and Laser (Leo Howard).
Oh, I should probably say a bit more about the storyline itself. The main character in the film is Toe Thompson, who is daily assaulted by Helvetica and her gang either on the way to or from school. It’s not violent or too scary, but he does seem to frequently end up head-first in a trashcan. While being chased by the bullies through what appears to be an abandoned construction site, Cole Black inadvertantly picks up a rainbow colored rock and whacks Toe. When Toe comes to, he picks up the rock and looks admiringly at it, wishing he knew what it was.
It’s a wishing rock and so his first wish is granted: he learns that it’s a wishing rock. He and his buddies try out all sorts of silly wishes, including Loogie who wishes for a never-ending supply of candybars, just to have them shoot out of his pants pockets ceaselessly. Toe wishes for some true friends, producing tiny space aliens whose craft are capable of great feats, including whipping together some delicious deserts in the kitchen.
Soon Helvetica finds out about the stone and she naturally wants it so she can have her wishes come true, but then her father Mr. Black learns of the wishing stone and realizes that he can sidestep his business and just wish for mountains of cash, infinite power, and so on.
Meanwhile, the film stops, rewinds, fast forwards and bounces around so that we gradually understand all the people who have come in contact with the stone, the wishes they’ve made, and the result of those wishes. Needless to say, the outcome is often quite different from the stated intent of a given wish!
There are lots and lots of funny lines in this film. One of my favorites is when the tiny aliens in Toe’s backpack transform his Black Box into an iPod and start playing rock music. The teacher looks up and says “I’m sorry, can you please stifle your inner High School Musical?”
Fair warning, before I wrap this up, however: I think the frantic pace and some of the slapstick imagery might be a bit too intense for younger children. My 9yo and 12yo would enjoy this film, but my 5yo is too young for this sort of pace, and would either get a headache or just tune it out. It’s really non-stop, really a visual roller coaster of effects and gags, and for a parent, it’s splendid fun, and for an older child the bits they miss don’t detract from the story but I’d say 6 and under probably can’t manage it.
Nonetheless, I applaud Rodriguez for his accomplishment with Shorts. With the effects of his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios, he’s created a unique, wild film that might well be more fun for adults than kids anyway.