Special effects go wild in kids' fantasy "Shorts"

Wed Aug 19, 2009 7:48pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Shorts" finds filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in his "Spy Kids" mode, where the heroes are all kids and special effects go hog wild. Although the "Spy Kids" trilogy found favor among most family members, "Shorts" directly aims at the shorter members of the family. When a town is terrorized by a Booger Monster, this is a movie for adolescents and maybe tweens. After Warner Bros. releases it Friday, expect the PG-rated movie to pick up some late-August action at the box office -- but not on the scale of "Spy Kids."

The title carries a dual meaning because the story gets related through a series of jumbled-up episodes -- shorts, if you will -- about a suburban community, Black Falls, where the kids all seem to reflect their parents' worst social traits. It's a company town as well. All adult employees are dedicated to an upgrade of the all-purpose product manufactured in the black-tower headquarters of Black Box Industries, ruled with a tyrannical hand by Mr. Black (James Spader).

Naturally, Mr. Black's progeny share in their dad's sense of entitlement and power. Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) is a tiny terror who, along with brother Cole (Devon Gearhart) and his gang, has targeted poor Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) for bullying at school. This usually consists in Toe winding up in a trash bin.

But things are about to change. The Short brothers -- Lug (Rebel Rodriguez), Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) and Laser (Leo Howard) -- discover a Rainbow Rock after a freak storm. Whoever clutches the colorful rock while making a wish immediately gets that wish. Of course, it might not come true in exactly the manner imagined. As the rock changes hands multiple times, the power gets seriously abused.

These shorts come at you out of order, like a kid rewinding a video to show you the best parts, then realizing he left out the chronology. Eventually, a whole array of characters are introduced, including Jimmy's parents (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer), who are assigned to competing teams to upgrade the Black Box.

Jimmy's big sister (Kat Dennings) tutors Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short), son of the town's leading scientists and hysterical germophobe (William H. Macy), whose plastic-covered domicile maintains a germ-free environment. Then there's the Blinkers, a brother and sister (Cambell Westmoreland, Zoe Webb) engaged in an endless game of who-will-blink-first and thereby missing all the town's action.

What action? Well, those Rainbow Rock wishes run amok. Castles form, crocodiles walk upright, kids turn into animals, the Booger Monster gets created, and adults tear at one another's throat.

Writer-director Rodriguez, who serves as cinematographer, editor and composer, also is at the controls of the visual effects. Restraint is not a word you'd use to describe those efforts. The CG slapstick soon grows wearying and even predictable.

Adult actors pretty much let the youngsters upstage them. The two leads, Bennett and Vanier, do a nice job holding the center of gravity while the film goes nuts around them. Best of all, "Shorts" is short, finishing before you can truly get tired of all those wishes gone wrong.

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