Nimbly executing another of his career-defining 180-degree turns, multihyphenate filmmaker Robert Rodriguez moves from the graphic-novel noir of “Sin City” to the family-friendly friskiness of “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.” Latest eclectic concoction from the Austin-based auteur skews even younger than his “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,” so there’s little chance of grabbing teens (or even many tweens) during summertime playdates. Still, small fry will be enchanted by this rambunctious action-adventure, and parents may appreciate the alternative to more Forcefully violent warm-weather fare. Pic should perform decently in its theatrical run, and swimmingly on homevid.
Whimsical script — reportedly based on collaboration between the filmmaker and his 8-year-old son Racer — strikes a nice balance of gee-whiz fantasy and tongue-in-cheek humor.
Prologue introduces Sharkboy (initially played by another Rodriguez offspring, Rebel Rodriguez) as a plucky youth who’s adopted by talking sharks after being separated from his scientist father during a marine lab disaster. In a triumph of nurture over nature, the youngster gradually assumes characteristics of his adoptive family — and even sprouts a dorsal fin.
Accompanied by Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley), an equally plucky young femme who emits leaping flames and volcanic rocks, a slightly older Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) seeks aid from Max (Cayden Boyd), a 10-year-old daydreamer who’s mercilessly teased by bullying classmates, and whose squabbling parents (David Arquette, Kristen Davis) appear headed for divorce court.
According to Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Max invented them in stories he writes. The fanciful fiction has become reality. But, Max also invented Planet Drool, a distant world now in danger of being overwhelmed by forces of darkness. It’s up to Max, with help from Sharkboy and Lavagirl, to visit Planet Drool and provide a happy ending.
Once again employing abundant blue-screen wizardly and state-of-art high-def vid technology, helmer Rodriguez drops his actors into a fantastical realm of cartoonish surrealism. It’s a wild wonderland where bloodhounds are shaped like electrical plugs, roller coasters run nonstop — much to the exhaustion of trapped passengers — and conveniently speedy vehicles are always just a brainstorm away from materializing.
As they traverse Planet Drool, the three heroes hitch a ride on a high-flying Train of Thought, float along the Stream of Consciousness, wander across the Land of Milk and Cookies — and ultimately reach the dark tower of the Dream Lair to confront Minus (effectively nasty Jacob Davich), a control-freakish fiend who bears a suspicious resemblance to the cruelest of the earthbound bullies who regularly torment Max.
Similarly, George Lopez plays Mr. Electric, a Minus minion who looks like a really mean alarm clock, and Mr. Electricidad, Max’s science teacher.
Much as he did in his “Spy Kids” trilogy, Rodriguez brings an impish sense of play and cunning showmanship to this effort. Special effects appear at once playfully cheesy and intricately sophisticated, reinforcing the overall impression of “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” as an elaborate home movie fairy tale produced by a child-prodigy computer whiz.
Unfortunately, the pic was shot in the relatively primitive anaglyphic process, which requires the audience to watch action through cardboard glasses outfitted with red and green filters, rather than the virtually transparent Polaroid filters developed for recent 3-D pix. (Rodriguez used the same retro technology for “Spy Kids 3-D.”) The tinted filters seriously compromise, and in many cases dim, the bright colors of Planet Drool. While the plot pivots on the threat of encroaching darkness, some scenes are too murky by half.
Still, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” remains a spirited romp guaranteed to engross even the most attention-deficient pre-teens. Perfs by the three young leads are winningly sincere and unaffected. As Mr. Electric/Mr. Electricidad, Lopez (who also voices two other characters) is just broad enough. (He’s clearly having the most fun as the high-voltage villain who feels the need to “explain” every bad pun he makes.)
Arquette and Davis are oddly tentative as Max’s parents, but not so much that they get in the way.