Most films for children, even the good ones, are concieved and made almost-exclusively by grownups, and often grownups in committee at that. For good or ill, thats the truth. Always one to go against the grain, Robert Rodriguez here offers something just slightly different: A movie for kids that plays on a kid’s general level of pace a logic, features an almost-exclusively child cast (all but one of the grownups are secondary characters) and which was thought up by a kid.
The story goes that Rodgriguez, modern Hollywood’s ultimate champion of do-it-yourself filmmaking late of “Sin City,” was so impressed by the creativity of his son Racer (brothers’ names: Rocket and Rebel, really) in the imagining of a pair of made-up pre-teen superheroes that he encouraged the boy to expand their adventures into a feature-length story. Rodriguez then adapted Racer’s imaginings into this film, made on the quick using the director’s beloved digital cameras, greenscreen-sets and homemade special effects. He’s also elected to release it in 3D, that reliably gimmicky technology that Rodriguez is still much more fond of than me (though it’s more pleasant here than in his prior outing, “Spy Kids 3D.”
Despite the title, the film is really centered on gradeschool-age Max, (Racer’s middle name), a hyper-imaginative introvert who’s detailed yarns about the titular dreamed-up superhero duo have earned him the scorn of the bully Linus and grave prodding to get “real friends” by his teacher Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez, in one of four roles in the film.) At home, his parents are on the cusp of the cusp of divorce (Mom’s too much the businesswoman, Dad’s too much the dreamer) and Max just wants to run off to his made-up escapist fantasy of Planet Drool rather than face another day of it.
Which, you’ll have guessed, is exactly what happens. Shark Boy and Lava Girl come crashing (literally) into Max’s school and spirit him off to Planet Drool, where he’s needed to lead the kid resistance against evil Mr. Electric (Lopez, morphed into a digital monstrosity that looks too much like Modok to be an accident) and a mysterious supervillian who’s turning Max’s dreamscape from good to evil. Much chasing, fighting, bad-guy outwitting and magical-object hunting follows; the young heroes battle monsters made out of giant electrical plugs, rescue captives from a non-stopping rollercoaster and cross a river of milk running through a landscape of cookies.
The reason this all works in spite of.. nay, because of it’s silliness is because everyone involved appears to be taking it all with total sincerity. The film isn’t trying to be self-aware or ironic about how it unfolds, it plays like a narrative dreamed up by a little boy which is precisely what it is. The film gives it’s target audience heroes their own age, drops them into a youthful dreamscape and lets things play out without a hint of grownup irony: Baddies are throttled and traps are escaped to a soaring action-epic score, and the young actors solemnly intone their Roy Thomas-esque heroic declarations with straight-faced gravity.
Let it also be said that young Racer has a keen mind for the invention of superheroes, his creations (an amphibious, anti-hero orphan raised by Great Whites and a morphing, magma-throwing alien respectively) are a lot of fun as characters. 13 year-old martial-artist Taylor Lautner, especially, seems to be having an insane amount of fun as Shark Boy, to the extent that he may end up the film’s breakout star (which would make this the youngest an action star has debuted in a long time.)
This movie is fun, but it’s really not made for me or anyone over the age of the main cast. Not really. Adults may tolerate it, and I enjoyed it… but this is one for the kids in the purest sense of the idea. And the kids it’s made for should have a blast with it.
FINAL RATING: 8/10