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Shorts Review

By Chris Boylan

"Shorts" Comes Up Short

Although director Robert Rodriguez may have gotten his start with an ultra low-budget action flick ("El Mariachi"), he's no stranger to family-friendly fare ("Spy Kids", "The Adventures of Shark Girl and Lava Boy"). "Shorts" brings Rodriguez back to the kid flick genre, where adult characters are really just caricatures fleshed out enough to provide plot fodder, while the story revolves primarily around the kids.

"Shorts" is set in Black Falls - a company town, where everyone works for the insidious Mr. Black (James Spader), CEO of Black Box Industries. The company's one product, the Black Box, brings convergence to the next level -- a single device that literally does it all: cell phone, baby monitor, hair dryer, media player, personal groomer -- you name it, the black box does it. But facing stiff competition from low-cost knock-offs, Mr. Black has charged his underlings with developing an unstoppable upgrade that will allow him to regain dominant market share. Black's children, Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and Cole Black (Devon Gearhart), are chips off the old block, ruling the playground with the same iron fist their father uses around the office.

Toby "Toe" Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) is our narrator and main character, an odd boy with few friends. His parents lead opposing teams at the company, desperately trying to develop the next killer upgrade. Only one can succeed while the other will be fired and forced to move out of Black Falls immediately along with their family (you're damned if you do, etc.). Toe spends his school day mornings being stuffed into a trash can by none other than Helvetica, Cole and their posse of bullies. That is until a mysterious rainbow-colored rock comes into his life granting the power to make wishes come true.

Of course, as is usually the case with wish fulfillment stories, it takes some practice to learn to be specific in one's wishing. All manner of consequences and oddities arise, both intended or unintended, as various characters come into possession of the rock: an enormous fortress, giant crocodiles that walk upright, a 50-foot tall deadbeat ex-boyfriend ("I wish you would just grow up!"), and a super-smart baby who communicates telepathically. The children realize the danger of the rock before the adults do, but in the end everyone young and old comes together to deal with the situation, giving us a nice tidy happy ending. 

To keep things interesting, "Shorts" is presented as a series of short episodes, in non-temporal sequence, each telling a different part of the overall story, with a different character in possession of the wishing rock, with the finale presented last. Rodriguez certainly kept himself busy during the production, acting as not only the director, but also director of photography, editor, visual effects supervisor, and score composer.  One man, one vision.  If nothing else, the casting is well done, for the adult characters as well as the children.  Spader chews up the screen with understated gusto as the prototypical power-hungry CEO.  As Toe, Jimmy Bennett portrays the likable kid next door character well, without being overly precocious and as Helvetica ("Hell" for short), newcomer Jolie Vanier is deliciously evil yet also not without charm and even a hint of vulnerability.  

As a family-friendly movie, "Shorts" should perhaps not be judged too harshly by us jaded grown-ups. Rodriguez tries to offer some entertainment for the parents, primarily via satirical observations on current society: the married couple who text "hugs and kisses" to each other from 6 feet away instead of the real thing, the non-stop 24-hour work day as evidenced by Black's video call to the Thompson home during dinner to check on his team leaders' progress. But ultimately the adult characters are too stereotypical for us to identify with, and the kids are a tad too wise beyond their years.

With its endless stream of kid-friendly jokes and situations (did I mention the giant booger monster?), I'm sure "Shorts" will be enjoyed by most viewers aged from 8 to 14.  Even my own young son and daughter -- ages 5 and 4 respectively -- said they liked it ("let's buy it on Blu-ray, daddy!"). But the older crowd may find that ultimately this film comes up just a little bit short.

What did you think?

Movie title Shorts
Release year 2009
MPAA Rating PG
Our rating
Summary Director Robert Rodriguez returns to family-friendly fare with a film that's sure to entertain the youngsters but offers little to the 14-and-over crowd.
View all articles by Chris Boylan
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