Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2005) Part Two

12. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D

The “Spy Kids” films prove that Robert Rodriguez is very in-touch with his inner child. This might be because he has five kids of his own. They all have the kind of names you’d expect Robert Rodriguez to give his children: Rebel, Racer, Rogue, and Rocket, with daughter Rhiannon having the sole normal-ish name. Rodriguez seems pretty proud of his offspring, often giving them bit parts in his movies. This creative relationship with his children would become more involved with “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.” Seven year old Racer has a story credit on the film, his dreams and imagination seemingly inspiring most of it. An obvious attempt to recreate the success of the “Spy Kids” series, the film would not have the same commercial or critical reach.

Max is going through a hard time. His parents are arguing a lot, prompting fears that a separation may come soon. He’s bullied at school, especially by a little prick named Linus. Even his teacher, Mr. Electricidad, enjoys teasing Max. (Probably because his daughter, Marissa, has a crush on him.) Max’s only companion is his vivid imagination. He dreams up Sharkboy and Lavagirl, heroes of the Planet Drool. When Linus steals his dream journal, Max goes into crisis. So does Planet Drool, which is now ruled by the cruel Minus and his robotic henchman, Mr. Electric. Sharkboy and Lavagirl emerge from Max’s dreams, take him to the real Planet Drool, and hope he can save their world.

It’s great that ol’ Rob is such a loving father but there’s a reason seven-year-olds don’t usually get to write fifty million dollar movies. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is an unerringly juvenile motion picture experience. There’s no interior logic to the story, Max’s fantasy and waking worlds having uncertain boundaries. The two cross over, despite clearly influencing one another, and no attempt is made to justify this. The characters travel to bizarre lands, like a place made of warm milk and cookies, inhabited by “cookie giants.” Most of all, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” strikes the viewer as a facile power fantasy for Rodriguez’ son. Racer’s middle name is Max, making the viewer assume this film rose out of a misplaced promise to turn a playtime fantasy into a cinematic reality.

While the humor in the “Spy Kids” series was sometimes crude, it at least showed a manic imagination parents could appreciate. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” doesn’t have that broad an appeal. Most of the jokes are aimed squarely at the kiddie crowd. Characters belch several times, sometimes right in the viewer’s face. There’s an extended fart joke I really could’ve done without. The Land of Milk and Cookies scene features a lot of squishing, stomping, and falling into wet foodstuff. Even aside from the kind of messy humor young kids favor, the jokes in the film are mostly pedestrian slapstick. Like Max falling crotch first onto a rope or Lavagirl repeatedly burning people by accident. The best humor in the film are puns, like dog-like trackers made of electric plugs called “plug-hounds.” And when puns are the best thing a film has to offer, that’s a bad sign.

While the first “Spy Kids” featured an unintrusive moral about appreciating family, the sequels got more heavy-handed with similar messages. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” also suffers from this approach. Not more than five minutes past in this movie without the word “dreams” being mentioned. The film wants kids to know the healing power of their own imagination, how they can process real world pain through dreams and stories. It’s a valuable message that the film makes too broad - Max can very literally dream up solutions to his problems - and also repeats ad nauseam, draining it of any power. There’s also an awful moment where Max and Linus become friends, suggesting that the best way to deal with bullies is to befriend them. This is terrible advice to send children, in my opinion, though the film luckily that much.

Further preventing me from enjoying “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is its protagonist. Max is, in the most simple language possible, a wienie. He spends long stretches of the movie whining. Even though the movie is largely set in his dream world, he doesn’t understand his own powers or abilities until closer to the end. This makes him kind of useless throughout, to the point where the titular characters become very irritated with him. An emotion the viewer can sympathize with. The movie constantly tells us Max is a very special boy but his behavior rarely backs that up. He’s a kid going through pain but his petulant behavior makes it hard to sympathize with him. Eventually, he learns to stop being so selfish but the viewer already dislikes him by that point.

With the “Spy Kids” films, Rodriguez was lucky to discover two child actors that had compelling screen presences and natural acting skills. Lightning does not strike a second time. The kid actors in “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” exhibit all the worst tendencies of child actors. Nobody's delivery is convincing, least of all Cayden Boyd as Max. At one point, he does a fake scream so bad, it gave me flashbacks to recess playtime. Jacob Davich, as Linus, seems like he’s being fed every line through a TelePrompTer while Sasha Pieterse seems visibly uncomfortable as Marissa. Taylor Dooley as Lavagirl almost gets there a few times, showing some emotion, but is undone by the general un-reality of the entire production. Perhaps sticking a bunch of ten-year-olds on a green screen and telling them to use their imagination wasn’t the best idea.

The worst performance, by far, is future “Twilight” heartthrob Taylor Lautner as Sharkboy. Lautner spends the entire film furiously mugging. His face bends in horribly unconvincing manners while he shouts all his dialogue gruffly. But even that isn’t the most painful thing in the movie. About halfway through, Lautner is called upon to sing. The minute or so of cinema that follows is among the most uncomfortable a film has ever made me. Lautner talk-sings in an off-key manner while doing more physical grandstanding at the camera, flipping and punching. It’s not all his fault, as the lyrics he’s given are utterly, painfully inane. The entire chorus is the word “dream” repeated six times. Few film moments have made me cringe as hard as this one.

I know, I’m an adult man ragging on a bunch of literal children. Rodriguez certainly doesn’t do his young performers any favors by building most of the film around them. There’s really only three adult performers in the entire film. Rodriguez once again pairs himself with established Latino talent by casting George Lopez as Mr. Electricidad. In Max’s dream world, his teacher becomes the supervillain Mr. Electric. This means Lopez’ face is stretched across a giant monitor in the center of a big robot body, an effect that wouldn’t be flattering for any actor. But at least the comedian seems to have some fun hamming it up in the exaggerated role. Lopez also voices a few other characters, which is pretty distracting. Rodriguez also got David Arquette and Kristen Davis to appear as Max’s parents, parts that feature a lot of oversized emotion but no truth or heart.

Like “Spy Kids 3,” “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” was largely filmed on green screens and released in 3-D. Also like “Spy Kids 3,” this brings out the worst in its director. Nearly all the film is set on hugely unconvincing digital back lots. The CGI is garish and artificial. Never do the film’s environments feel real while the actors weightlessly float around them. A good example is whenever Lavagirl shoots lava from her hands. It seems effortless for her and has no effect on anything around her. The movie feels like a PlayStation 2 cut scene some times. The 3-D effects are no better, just drawing attention to how fake everything looks. Globs of green slime or cookie crumbs being tossed at the viewer is just exhausting. (I didn’t see the film in theaters but apparently it was post-converted to 3-D, which I’m sure made the effects look even worst.)

So do I have anything positive to say about “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl?” There’s very little practical production design in the film but what is there is pretty good. Sharkboy and Lavagirl’s costumes are neat. Sharkboy’s, in particular, does a good job of suggesting a shark, with a fin in the back and teeth on the front, without overdoing it. I also like the design of his rocket ship. It’s a big silver cartoon shark with rocket fins on the back, the kind of fun and intuitive design you’d expect a kid to come up with. There’s also a tin-can robot named a Tobor, a cute design that is creepily reduced to a floating set of eyeballs and lips through most of the film. (And given a slow, drawl of a voice by Lopez.)

Truthfully, the most interesting thing about the film is not its actual content but how it reflects on the filmmaker’s life. You see, Rodriguez and his wife of 16 years separated about a year after “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” came out. And if Max is an obvious stand-in for Racer, it’s easy to assume his dad is a stand-in for Robert. His parents fight a lot, with his father being beleaguered by his mom. Dad is a dreamer but Mom insist on dragging him back down to Earth, a dynamic that is putting strain on their relationship. During the climax, Mom is sucked into a tornado while Dad begs her to stay. Magically, she’s transported back to him, all their material problems being resolved. It’s a lazy conclusion to the subplot, suggesting feckless hope can overcome irreconcilable differences. Is it too much to assume Rodriguez was venting his resentment at his dissolving marriage while half-heartedly wishing it would stay together here? It’s pretty weird that he put such a personal element into this goofy kids movie, isn’t it? Of course, kids are unlikely to pick up on this particular element of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, this gossipy conjecture proves way more compelling than the movie around it.

If “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” had remained as Racer Rodriguez’ childish playtimes, that would’ve been fine. A kid thinking up these characters and scenarios is really cute actually. Rodriguez taking inspiration from his kid could’ve been okay as well, if he paired those ideas to decent narrative coherence or pacing. (Look at “Axe Cop,” which had a similar origin with much more entertaining results.) Instead, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is like watching a family talent show that goes on for an uncomfortably long time. Once again, the director detached himself far too much from reality with his green screen shenanigans. Then again, I’m obviously not the target audience for this motion picture. Practically flopping in theaters, I’m sure “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” entertained some kids on home video. But it ain’t no “Spy Kids,” that’s for sure. [Grade: D-]

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