It’s unclear whether the credit “A Rodriguez Family Film” is intended to indicate that The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D is a Robert Rodriguez picture for families or a film made by his family — and both definitions could be accurate.
The film, after all, is written, photographed, edited, scored (with a little help) and directed by Rodriguez. The story and characters are based on ideas from Rodriguez’s 7-year-old son, Racer Max, and the movie is co-produced by Rodriguez’s wife, Elizabeth Avellan. And, of course, the whole thing was made at Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, which is a sort of high-tech setup for what isn’t a lot more — conceptually speaking — than backyard filmmaking.
It’s a pity, therefore, that the resulting movie doesn’t feel very homemade or even handmade. The problem is that it’s all too obviously designed to create a new Spy Kids franchise, feeling less like a movie in its own right than an extension of the last (and least) entry in that series, Spy Kids 3-D. Actually, this movie’s a bit better than Spy Kids 3-D, which was bogged down by “guest” appearances and had the overall feel of a video game.
There is considerably more imagination at work this round, thanks to some new Rodriguez insight from Racer Max. The director has come in for some criticism on this score: It’s been suggested that using your son’s childhood imaginings is the height of self-indulgence, but that attitude overlooks the fact that the original Spy Kids included ideas Rodriguez dreamed up during his own childhood. This movie is much in the same mode — only one generation removed — and I’m not at all sure what’s wrong with using a 7-year-old’s input for a movie made for 7-year-olds.
I’m less sold on the idea that a child had much to do with the more adult references in the film; the literal depictions of a “stream of consciousness” and a “train of thought” both feel a little too much like an adult imagining what a child might make of those terms. And the fact that Shark Boy adheres very closely to the objective stated by Rodriguez at the time of the original Spy Kids — to “tap into the possibilities for a family adventure that offers to kids not only imagination but empowerment” — makes it seem unlikely that this was left to chance.
All the same, the movie’s depiction of the dream world of Planet Drool has a kind of childlike, or unconscious, surrealism. And there’s an agreeable dose of the kind of casual grotesquerie inherent in childhood. I’m sure the image of the young Shark Boy (Racer Rodriguez) feeding the sharks early in the film probably seems normal to a child, but on an adult level, it’s a creepier image than anything found in the overkill of the newly arrived scare flick High Tension.
The major flaw with Shark Boy lies less with the movie than with the decision to make it in 3-D. The situation is exactly the same one I noted in commenting on Rodriguez’s last film: “Making the movie in 3-D wasn’t itself a bad idea; the error was in making Spy Kids 3-D in the format’s crudest possible form — the one with the crummy, red-and-blue cardboard glasses.” (Actually, the film could be, and in digital venues has been, shown in the much better polarized 3-D process, but that requires a more elaborate and expensive setup than most theaters are equipped with.)
As with Spy Kids 3-D, this approach reduces Rodriguez’s gorgeous pop-art colors to so much dingy, brownish purple — and is more than slightly apt to induce an eye-strain headache. (And that doesn’t even factor in how uncomfortable the glasses are after a few minutes.) No doubt one day we’ll be able to see the movie the way it could look, but most of us are currently reduced to viewing Rodriguez’s world through what can only be called dung-colored glasses, and that’s a pity. Kids are apt to care a good bit less about this shortcoming, of course, and will likely get a kick out of the 3-D effects, regardless of the drab color and the limitations of the anaglyphic process.
While the movie is far from perfect, overall it’s a worthy attempt, and it does add something to the whole “empowerment” process Rodriguez mentioned. That something — that people whose own dreams have been crushed enjoy nothing so much as trying to crush your dreams — is a life lesson that cannot be learned too soon. Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke