What would you wish for if you found a rainbow-colored rock that told you to make a wish, then granted every one? Would you go for world peace, a million bucks? Or like the kids in "Shorts," would you wish for a castle and a moat protected by snakes and alligators, not realizing the complications that might crop up?
Me, I'd wish that writer-director Robert Rodriguez, who brought us the finely wrought darkness of "Sin City," would set aside the kid stuff and get back to the promise of his earlier work . . . right after world peace and a million bucks.
Here's some food for thought: In "Shorts," one of the centerpiece moments features a big, slimy, green special-effects booger monster named Booger Monster, which probably cost a lot more than the $7,000 and change he spent to make the terrific 1992 thriller "El Mariachi."
Yes, I realize this is a kids' movie, but that's no excuse for short-circuiting creativity. And yes, I understand that Booger Monster is aimed right at slime-loving 9-year-old boys everywhere. But Dr. Noseworthy's (William H. Macy) heart to heart with his son about the downside of eating booger bits, now that was just gross gross, as opposed to great gross, and there is an important distinction between the two as anyone knows. Besides, if Bill Macy can't make boogers great gross-out fun, who in the world possibly can?
But I digress. The story's narrator, and central player, is an 11-year-old named Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett). He lives in the company town of Black Hall with his parents, played by Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann, who must be taking a break from working on husband Judd Apatow's movies. Like the rest of the grown-ups, they work for the nefarious Black Box Industries, which is in the business of creating powerful black boxes, basically super-gadgets that transform into whatever you need.
James Spader, always a good choice for a bad guy, is Mr. Black, the nasty head of the company. He's got crush-the-competition, take-over-the-world ambitions that just won't let him rest. In a case of the crayon not falling far from the box, his kids Cole Black (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) are the school bullies, and Toe turns out to be their favorite target.
Rounding out Toe's wrecking crew is his teenage sister, Stacey (Kat Dennings), who finds him completely repulsive. In other words, you can hear Mr. Nuance marching out the back door.
The story is intentionally broken apart into segments, then tossed around and put back together again in no particular order by Toe as he zooms back and forth across the tale of the rainbow rock. Rodriguez has said he was trying to mimic the way his kids use the remote, which makes me think he's due for some sort of parenting intervention.
No matter who is in possession of the rainbow rock, the result is basically one hot potato of a bad wish after another, although the whirling gizmos that clean up Toe's room aren't bad.
The problem with "Shorts" is in the execution. The blown-up plot line at times derails even the little ones, the many fine comedic grown-ups are mostly squandered, and the "message" part of the movie feels like it was thrown together during detention, resulting in a wrap-up that is rushed and cloyingly PC.
The best moments are when the kids -- both the bad and good ones -- are plotting and scheming together. Even then, the tension that should have crackled through those scenes, leaving the audience squealing "Nooooo, don't wish for that . . .," fizzled out. In the end, "Shorts" feels long -- very, very long.
MPAA rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release