Warner Bros. (2009), Warner Home Video (November 24, 2009), 2 discs, 89 mins
plus supplements, 1.85:1 ratio, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $35.99
Robert Rodriguez has a mixed legacy with movie fans. He will always be admired for bringing Frank Miller’s Sin City comic book to life (though some may have found it too literal), his Planet Terror segment in Grindhouse has a devout following, and older movies of his like Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico have earned their fans. Rodriguez, however, wears another hat as a director, that of a maker of children’s films. His Spy Kids films were hits, but its last entry (which helped kick off the current 3-D craze) and its follow-up Shark Boy And Lava Girl began to see his status fade in the minds of parents. Non-deterred, Rodriguez brought another children’s film to cinemas this year, based on ideas given to him when brainstorming with his own children.
Shorts (sometimes seen with its subtitle The Adventures Of The Wishing Rock) is the story of what happens when the biggest storm in Texas history leaves behind a magical rock that grants wishes to whomever holds it. The rock is first found by the youngest of three brothers, named Loogie, who eventually decides that none of them can properly take responsibility for the awesome powers that the rock yields. After Loogie gets rid of the rock, it is then found by Toby “Toe” Thompson, a brace-faced tweener with more imagination than friends. Even his big sister thinks he’s a weirdo. Toe is being bullied by Helvitica and Coal Black, children of the town’s major employer; so, when Toe finds the rock and figures out what it does, it opens up tremendous possibilities— starting with the creation of little alien friends he hopes to keep him company and protect him.
Toe’s parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann) work for Mr. Black, the president of a company that produces an amazing consumer product called The Black Box. The Black Box transforms into any conceivable device, but it is starting to lose ground to its competitors. Mr. Black, an ornery megalomaniac played by James Spader, challenges his people to come up with more improvements. This places Toe’s parents in opposition, as they each head a team that Mr. Black has competing for his favor. The loser of the competition to improve The Black Box will lose his or her job and will be instructed to leave the town. (The fact that the two team leaders are married does not disturb Mr. Black in the least.) Naturally, with their son the holder of a magical rock, the Thompsons problems may get solved as well.
Except, of course, nothing goes according to how anyone would want. Toe and Helvitica both end up in arm casts, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson end up fused together, Toe’s friend “Nose” Noseworthy creates a booger monster, and all heck generally breaks loose. This means lots and lots of special effects, chases, and general mayhem. It all gets to be a little much for adult viewers, but children (from my viewing of the film at home with my kids) seem to enjoy it. There is also some genuine character growth, though none of it is too unpredictable. Toe learns to stand up for himself, the Black kids learn to not be jerks, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson rekindle their romance, and Nose and his inventor dad (William H. Macy) get over their phobias and become more active participants in life.
To those who would find this movie treads familiar ground, or is too predictable, they need to remember that this film is aimed at children, many of whom have not seen all the movies that came before. It’s an old story told in a modern way, with contemporary kids and modern special effects. The original conceit for the film was to loosely base it on the adventures of The Little Rascals, telling a greater story in a series of “shorts” that eventually brings all the characters together and form a cohesive narrative. The story is also told partially out of order, which seems like a random choice to make with this material, but I applaud the fact that Rodriguez doesn’t mind challenging his young audience a bit. The “Pulp Fiction-lite” method was not necessary, but it does make the film somewhat more unique and interesting to watch. The movie also shows off Rodriguez’s visual flair, from sweeping camera moves to colorful title cards.
This is the type of film that may not be remembered as a classic, but there will be a segment of kids growing up now that will still have fond memories of it when they grow up. When they’re older, they may re-watch it and wonder why they loved it so much, but for a time this will be one movie that fired their imaginations and got them interested in fantastic stories. I really could have done without the booger monster, but Rodriguez knows that kids love that stuff, and they’ll love a lot more about this creative, adventurous movie.
Warner has released this film on both DVD and Blu-ray, with the Blu-ray carrying more special features than the DVD. The Blu-ray also has a second disc, which is a DVD that plays the film in standard definition, with none of the bonus features, but it does also have a digital copy that may be downloaded. The Blu-ray comes in standard Blu-ray packaging, with an identical o-sleeve (except that the o-sleeve also promotes the digital copy). Inside the case are instructions for using the digital copy and BD-Live, as well as a code for the Warner Insider Rewards program. Incidentally, the BD-Live access from the Blu-ray currently just brings up the usual Warner portal, which is currently playing a teaser for a new animated Scooby movie.
Common to the retail DVD and the Blu-ray (but not the DVD that comes with the Blu-ray— got it?) are two featurettes. The more pertinent of these is Ten-Minute Film School: Shorts (actually running 8:54), which carries home movies made by the Rodriguez family. Watch to see how even a little kid playing with a toy train can be made exciting with the addition of primo sound effects. Some of the videos even have CGI, which Robert says came from off-the-shelf software. Most interesting is a presentation reel for Shorts that Robert and his kids did, essentially a few Shorts scenes with basic but surprisingly good CGI. Some may think Rodriguez to be indulgent, but I think it’s nice how he includes his family in his projects. (Sons Rebel, Racer, and Rocket all appear in the film itself, too, along with sister Tina.) The other featurette common to the Blu-ray and retail DVD is Ten-Minute Cooking School: Chocolate Chip Volcano Cookies (9:58), which is just Robert and his daughter baking cookies, with the boys helping them eat the results. His cooking featurettes have become almost standard for his DVDs, but… I can’t say I’m too interested. The one thing that the retail DVD has that the Blu-ray does not is a pan-and-scan version of the film.
The Blu-ray also has two exclusive featurettes. The Magic Of Shorts (9:19) is the disc’s chief “Making Of” bonus, with Rodriguez and his crew discussing both CGI and practical effects, as well as pre-visualization; comments from the actors also appear. For a qick featurette, it has some good stuff in it; and really, it’s enough to serve the film. The special effects talk is pretty basic for old-time film buffs, but a good primer for kids. Shorts Show And Tell (5:20) has some additional behind-the-scenes material with the child actors.
The hi-def video is, naturally, very good. I spotted no significant issues, though the transfer may fall just short of the “3-D” look one has come to hope for with high definition. Audio on the Blu-ray is provided by English Dolby TrueHD, and Dolby Digital versions in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles are offered in the same languages. (The included DVD drops the French and Portuguese audio and subtitles, while the retail DVD drops the Portuguese ones only). The TrueHD track is dynamic, but likely not reference quality. Still, it adds good fun to all the magical goings-on.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
It may not live to be a classic, but this is a solid kids’ film, with plenty of imagination and adventure. It plays better to kids than it does adults, which likely explains its sub par box office (though its low budget still allowed for a profit, and that’s what counts in Hollywood); but make no mistake, kids do enjoy it. The special effects are fun, even if I personally found the snot beast to have gone too far. Without that jolly green giant, I might have given the movie another point. (The excessive product placement was also a bit of a turn-off. I mean, Silk soy milk? Really?) Video and audio are as good as hoped, and the supplements round things out nicely. If Rodriguez can cut down on the gross-out humor, I’ll be eager to see what he comes up with next.
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