I understand that writer/director Robert Rodriguez wants to give his R-rated instincts a rest on occasion, focusing on family entertainment to delight his numerous offspring and his own inner child. With 2001’s “Spy Kids,” it appeared the new direction was going to become an artistic boon for Rodriguez, allowing the filmmaker to expand his horizons. And then “Spy Kids 2” chipped the paint job, “Spy Kids 3-D” sneezed on the cake, and “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl” made life just a little more difficult to live. “Shorts” is the latest round of juvenile antics from Rodriguez and advances his wasteful behavior, denting a promising filmmaking career on yet another crude distraction that plays much too obnoxiously.
“Shorts” is a story told in shorts, centered on the neighborhood of Black Falls, where the residents all work for the evil Mr. Black (James Spader) creating the Black Box, a cell phone-like gadget that can shape-shift into any helpful, portable device. Dropping from the sky one day is a rainbow-colored wishing rock, which falls into the hands of dork Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett). Embarking on a series of wishes, Toe turns the town upside down, tempting others to steal the rock for their own purposes, including school bully Helvetica (Jolie Vanier). With pals Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) and Nose (Jake Short), parents (including Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann, and William H. Macy), and Toe’s sister (Kat Dennings) hunting around for the rock, it becomes a race against time once Mr. Black becomes aware of the stone’s powers, hoping to take over the land with his wicked wishes.
Assuming his customary stance as the all-in-one filmmaking machine, Rodriguez (who directs, scripts, shoots, edits, co-scores, and prepares daily lunches) aims to whip up a live-action cartoon with “Shorts,” breaking down the fantasy narrative into bite-sized pieces for easier consumption. The picture is five chapters of Black Falls shenanigans with the wonders of the wishing rock employed to tie it all together, permitting Rodriguez plenty of dead air to fashion his favorite cocktail of adolescent slapstick, aggressive scoring, and homegrown special effects.
Narrated by Toe (who also has the magical power to pause and fast-forward through the footage), “Shorts” is a purposely disjointed feature. Rodriguez is smart to rearrange story points, promoting a confusing swell of nervous energy to best backdrop the comedic disorder. There’s no off button to the picture, leaving those sensitive to noise at the mercy of Rodriguez and his inability to throttle his immature exuberance. “Shorts” barrels ahead with annoying, camera-mugging child actors (Bennett and Vanier are inexcusably insufferable) and screeching visual effects, creating a piercing explosion of sight gags and cartoon sound cues, including random fart noises during the chapter breaks. Why? Because Rodriguez can.
Kids will likely devour this fantasia of bug-eyed reactions, miniature alien invasions, thespian hyperactivity, and booger monsters (one of the many icky and oddly predictable wishing rock mishaps), and Rodriguez makes it clear he’s playing right to the nose-pickers. Still, the base sensibilities displayed here are covering for a decided lack of imagination. The man of a thousand jobs comes across as desperate to please, using every pandering device he can exploit to get the kids on his side. While there’s some thrill in seeing Duckie and Steff share the frame once again, there’s nothing for adults to latch onto with “Shorts.” It’s a vacuous feature, devoid of any charms; a cartoon mishmash missing fizz and ingenuity to make it bearable to any audience member crazy enough to evolve beyond a fascination with nostril functions.