Directed By: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jon Cryer William H. Macy, Leslie Mann, James Spader, Jimmy Bennett, Kat Dennings, Trevor Gagnon, Jolie Vanier, Devon Gearhart
Film Length: 89 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16:9/4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: November 24, 2009
The Film ***Shorts follows the misadventures of a group of kids who live in the town of Black Falls, Texas over the course of a couple of days. The town is dominated by "Black Box Unlimited", the maker of the nearly all-things to all people electronic gadget known as the Black Box, and its scheming eccentric CEO, Mr. Black (Spader). With most of the adults in the town driven to distraction trying to satisfy the whims of Mr. Black, their kids are frequently left to fend for themselves. Their already strange lives take a turn for the even stranger when they discover a rainbow colored wishing rock. The film is arranged in to numerous vignettes telling the stories of the town kids and their experiences with the wishing rock. These "shorts" are presented out of chronological order following the stream of conscious narration of bully magnet "Toe" Thompson (Bennett). Besides Toe, the primary players in the wishing rock drama include pint-sized goofball "Loogie" (Gagnon), booger-picking germ-obsessed shut-in Nose (Short), Toe's older sister Stacey (Dennings), and school bullies and children of Mr. Black Helvitica (Vanier) and Cole (Gearhart). Adults drawn into the drama include Toe and Stacey's work-obsessed Mom (Mann) and Dad (Cryer) who are growing distant while leading competing development teams for the next Black Box, Nose's father Dr. Noseworthy (Macy), the chief scientist for Black Box Unlimited, and ultimately, Mr. Black himself who seeks to exploit the wishing rock for corporate domination.
With Shorts, Director Robert Rodriguez takes the idea of a modern-day Our Gang-style menagerie of kids involved in various adventures and applies a huge heaping of DIY digital effects whimsy consistent with his previous ventures into family films including The Spy Kids series and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. The whole film is structured around kid-logic, which can be frustratingly nonsensical for grown-ups, but will likely keep the target audience of 7-14 year olds entertained.
Rodriguez keeps the editorial pedal to the metal throughout, moving things along at a breakneck pace that proves useful since if viewers were allowed to reflect on the on-screen events at any given time, they would likely recognize them as pointless and ridiculous. For the sake of maintaining this pace, characters frequently realize things about the bizarre events unfolding on-screen that they could never realistically have figured out given the information available to them. On the other hand, the word "realistic" was clearly never in this film's Mission Statement, and it it is somewhat refreshing to see a kid-oriented movie where the characters have to act smarter rather than dumber than people one encounters in the real-world.
The juvenile actors are generally quite good, with Jimmy Bennett doing a good job anchoring the film as the sympathetic "Toe". Trevor Gagnon and Jolie Vanier steal nearly every scene in which they appear. Gagnon nails his part as more or less the cinematic embodiment of "kid logic" who may not be a genius, but is smart enough to eventually figure out that he is not that smart. Vanier actually strikes a subtle balance as the bully Helvetica, suggesting an underlying softer side to her outer sadist which never tilts towards sentimental. How noteworthy is her performance in the context of Shorts? Lets just say that you will not see me come within a country mile of using the word "subtle" to describe any other aspect of the film. As for the adult cast, Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann have some fun with a few scenes of comic disfunction playing Toby's devoted but distracted parents, but they are never asked to do very much. James Spader and William H. Macy play more or less one-note characters who are asked to do even less. That being said, the film is clearly organized from a kid's perspective, and adults who are shallow, impenetrable, and easily boiled-down to a one sentence description are probably consistent with that idea.
The Video **The viewer has the choice to watch the film in either a widescreen version that fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame or a 4:3 reformatted full frame presentation. For the purpose of this review, I only viewed the widescreen presentation. The video quality is extremely disappointing, and the main culprit is poor compression. The image is absolutely riddled with compression artifacts. Anyone watching on a large projection set-up will have an experience akin to watching the film through a lightly frosted window due to the haze of digital grain.
The Audio ***½The whimsical nature of the proceedings and multitude of wild digital effects set-pieces offer multiple opportunities for 5.1 surround razzamatazz which are only lightly exploited by this somewhat restrained theatrical mix. The restraint is solely limited to the dimensionality of the mix as the film wastes no opportunity to lay in aggressive and wacky sound effects, with flatulence being the go-to noise whenever the pace threatens to slacken. The mix is presented with decent fidelity through an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at a 384kbps bitrate. Alternate 5.1 tracks are available dubbed in Spanish and French.
The Extras **When the disc is first inserted into a player, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos. All are presented in 4:3 video. letterboxed when appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:
- Scooby Doo: The Mystery Begins DVD/BD Trailer (1:36)
- Scribblenauts Nintendo DS game trailer (:55)
- LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 video game trailer (1:06)
- Mini Ninjas video game trailer (2:11)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DVD/BD Trailer (2:20)
- A Combined promo for the A Charlie Brown Thangsgiving & A Charlie Brown Christmas & Peanuts Holiday Collection Deluxe Edition DVDs (2:09)
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Season 1 DVD Trailer (1:31)
From the discs Special Features menu, pickings are fairly slim consisting of the following two installments in Robert Rodriguez's regular "Ten Minute Cooking/Film School" series:
- Ten Minute Cooking School: Chocolate Chip Volcano Cookies (9:58) features Rodriguez and his youngest daughter Rhiannon in their kitchen making cookies. They are joined by some additional Rodriguez family members whenn it is time to eat cookies at the end. The featurette is detailed enough that I believe you could actually make the cookies yourself if you followed along, but unless you want to try it, you are unlikely to watch this more than once.
- Ten Minute Film School: Short Shorts (8:51) Is the only behind the scenes material on the disc. It starts out with a demonstration by Rodriguez on how he can use sound effects and simple off the shelf computer graphics software to spice up pretty standard home movies. I believe these examples are re-used from at least one of his earlier "Ten Minute Film School" featurettes from an earlier movie. Things subsequently get more interesting when Rodriguez proceeds via voiceover to introduce clips from a "demo" home movie version of certain scenes from Shorts that were created to help sell the film to its backers. These scenes are shown back to back with their counterparts in the finished film.
PackagingThe single-sided dual-layered DVD-9 disc comes packaged in an Amaray-sized "Eco-Box" case with bright orange plastic instead of the standard black. Inside the case is an insert with a coupon code for downloading a reduced price Windows Media Digital Copy of the film.
Summary ***Robert Rodriguez's Shorts attempts a modern spin on "Our Gang"-style kid-centered comedy held together loosely by a wish-fulfillment plot and bolstered with massive heaps of DIY digital effects. The resulting film is so focused on its key demographic that I would say it is safe to add a full star rating to the one I posted above if you are between the ages of seven and fourteen. Adults may get some entertainment and a few chuckles out of the charismatic youthful cast and broad comedy, but are more likely to feel out of place in the film's booger and fart saturated milieu. The film is presented on DVD with a sub-standard poorly compressed video presentation, a decent if unspectacular 5.1 audio presentation, and two minor featurettes, one of which is focused on the film's early development and one of which is focused on a cookie recipe.