You know a technology is really pervading our culture when you see it satirized in a film aimed at the 8-to-12-year-old set. Shorts, the latest live-action kids’ movie from writer/director Robert Rodriguez, takes place in a company town called Black Falls where all the adults are hard at work designing the latest version of the Black Box, a device that looks like a rough-hewn Lego sculpture and can make phone calls, text-message, surf the web, play music, monitor your baby, floss your teeth, make your dinner — well, you get the idea. While the Black Box and its millions of apps have wrested market share away from the Purple Pyramid and the Silver Cylinder — as lockjawed company president James Spader proudly tells his team — the thing is too overtaxed to hold a battery charge for more than a few minutes.
As zany cultural critiques go, Shorts is no “The Simpsons.” But it does draw a nifty parallel between the all-in-one magical communication gadgets modern adults lust after and the age-old tales of talismans that grant wishes. In all those stories about genies and monkeys’ paws and sand fairies, of course, the instant gratifier of desires exacts a price. And so it is here. When a group of Black Falls kids discover a candy-colored magic rock that has tumbled from the heavens, they naturally ask it for all the wrong things. Just as naturally, all their wishes become occasions for loud, fast-moving action sequences, comic miscalculations, Day-Glo color schemes and clunky computer effects.
When Rodriguez isn’t revolutionizing the indie film industry or teaming up with his buddy Quentin Tarantino to play grindhouse director, he makes high-concept kids’ films like the Spy Kids trilogy. As such things go, Shorts isn’t brilliant, but it has enough random oddities to keep adults from nodding off. The story is told in a way that might best be described as Pulp Fiction reimagined for 10-year-olds. Because the hero and narrator, Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), can’t remember the chaotic events in the order they happened, we view them out of order, as a series of disconnected “shorts.”
While it’s nice to know Rodriguez considers today’s kids capable of processing nonlinear narratives, he doesn’t do anything cool with this device. It simply gives him an excuse to tell stories such as that of the germophobe mad scientist (William H. Macy) who accidentally creates a giant man-eating booger. Each linked tale targets a modern foible and ends with a tidy lesson: The germophobe family learns not to fear fresh air. Three couch-bound brothers (Trevor Gagnon, Rebel Rodriguez and Leo Howard) learn there’s more to life than TV and video games. And Toe’s parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann), who make an unwise wish to be “closer” and end up Siamese twins, learn that not all communication can be done via text-message.
But when it’s time for Spader’s monstrous corporate tycoon to learn his lesson, Rodriguez wimps out. The movie is like a would-be Roald Dahl story in search of its cold, misanthropic heart.
Shorts does have a scruffy charm that keeps it from crossing the line into blandness. Probably its most enjoyable element is Jolie Vanier as the tycoon’s big-eyed daughter, Helvetica Black, a ferocious bully who’s a cross between Veruca Salt and Wednesday Addams. (She evokes Christina Ricci in the pre-sexy-starlet days.) I’m going to go out on a limb and guess many little girls would like to be Helvetica. Though her nickname may be Hel, she has her own theme song. And when she feels like using a wish to punish her annoying brother, she turns him not into a cockroach but into a “dung beetle,” Kafka-style. Now that’s imagination.
The movie has other amusing touches, such as a baby afflicted with genius who communicates telepathically in the superior, soporific voice of a New Age book on tape; and an ongoing stare-off between a bug-eyed brother and sister.
While it’s not ground-breaking entertainment, we can say this for Shorts: It contains no digitally animated talking chipmunks or chihuahuas. Not a one. Too bad this point in its favor will seal its fate at the box office. And, yes, if you want to check the weekend take, your iPhone probably has an app for that.