More zippy, diverting fun from Robert Rodriguez’s family filmmaking factory, “Shorts” delivers a shopworn moral lesson for kids and adults (be careful what you wish for!) with a more pointed contempo spin (technology is ruining human communication!). A series of cheekily interwoven vignettes, centered around a magic rock that wreaks havoc on residents of a small suburban town, the Aug. 21 Warner Bros. release has fewer marketable hooks than Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” franchise but looks to exceed the $39 million domestic haul of “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.” On homevid, “Shorts” should be a long-term performer.
Foregoing the strenuous 3-D experiments of “Sharkboy” and the third “Spy Kids” movie, Rodriguez’s latest feels like a return to kiddie basics, though there’s been no accompanying dip in zany energy or infectious sense of play. A pleasing PG-rated confection tossed off between schlockfests (2007’s “Grindhouse” entry “Planet Terror” and the forthcoming “Grindhouse” spinoff “Machete”), the pic once again finds Rodriguez wearing almost every hat imaginable — director, producer, writer, d.p., co-editor, composer, visual effects supervisor, re-recording mixer — and accommodating no fewer than six members of his family in the sprawling ensemble cast.
Set in the fictitious town of Black Hills, these five “Shorts” are narrated, out of sequence, by young Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett). Neglected at home by his workaholic parents (Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer) and abused at school by a group of bullies led by pint-sized classmate Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier), Toe comes into possession of a rainbow-colored rock that has the power to grant wishes. Naturally, they aren’t granted in quite the manner he expects.
As the mayhem multiplies, the rock passes from one unsuspecting pair of hands to another, occasioning a series of misadventures involving the other neighborhood kids, their parents and an impressive array of visual effects. Three boys find themselves fending off cobras and crocodiles; another kid, the son of a germophobic scientist (William H. Macy), does battle with a giant booger monster; a bully is transformed into a dung beetle (twice); a baby (Rodriguez’s niece, Bianca) is hilariously gifted with superhuman intelligence; and Toe’s ordinarily distant parents are given an awkward lesson in forced intimacy.
Each of these snappy tall tales combines broad slapstick, impudent verbal sparring and scatological humor, neatly garnished with an obvious moral lesson or two. One of the charming dividends of Rodriguez’s anything-goes approach (which belies the script’s sturdy carpentry) is that a kid-targeted cautionary tale about the importance of good hygiene ends up sharing screen time with a fairly barbed portrait of the deadening of American family life due to high-tech distractions such as cell phones and flatscreens.
The chief villain here is Mr. Black (James Spader), father of Helvetica and CEO of the huge corporation that owns everything and everyone in Black Falls, allowing Rodriguez to gleefully satirize domestic apathy and rampant workaholism, as well as multipurpose handheld gadgets and the infomercials used to sell them. Subtle it ain’t, but parents watching “Shorts” with their kids may experience an uncomfortable moment of self-recognition.
In an ensemble that involves much adult-kid interaction, the most memorable perf belongs to young Vanier. A dead ringer for Christina Ricci circa “The Addams Family,” Vanier is so lovably hateful here, she gets an “introducing” billing in the credits and even her own musical motif.
Pro tech package has an appealingly handmade, labor-of-love quality. Opening logos and titles are preceded by an amusing one-minute short whose tyke characters reappear throughout the film as an increasingly belabored running gag.