I realize I'm old now, but I grew up in the era that Nickelodeon first began dominating children's eyeballs. I know a thing or two from brightly colored, frenetic kids' entertainment. But Shorts, the new film from Robert Rodriguez, jumps right over the line between energetic and frenzied and zooms right on by, offering poop jokes and booger monsters and sibling rivalries and everything else at a pace that might delight a kid, but will exhaust anyone with a driver's license. Add in an obvious central metaphor about technology addiction that fails to go anywhere, and a big cast of hammy child actors, and the whole thing becomes downright painful.
It starts off so promising too, with a prologue about two siblings (Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb) locked in a staring contest that takes them from the breakfast table all the way to bedtime. It's the first introduction to the movie's structure, which is a series of interconnected shorts that can be paused, fast-forwarded, rewound and narrated by the main character, Toby "Toe" Thompson (Jimmy Bennnet), who wants to tell us all about how this magical rainbow rock transformed his neighborhood.
His town, Black Falls, is a company town, dominated and entirely employed by a giant factory that makes the Black Box, an supremely advanced iPhone that goes from toaster to laptop in seconds. Toe's parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann) are among many underlings working for Mr. Black (James Spader), a supervillain version of Steve Jobs demanding that the Black Box be improved at all costs. Meanwhile Toe has stumbled upon a rainbow-colored rock which, as it passes among the kids of the neighborhood, proves itself to be far more powerful than any human technology could be.
The individual shorts zip among the neighborhood families, from germophobe Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) living with his geeky inventor dad (William H. Macy, of course) to the nefarious Black kids, the bullying Cole Black (Devon Gearhart) and the alpha female Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier), Toe's sworn enemy, and perhaps secret love. Vanier is the only kid in the movie whose acting is worth a fig, and with her black-haired, young-Christina Ricci cool, she seems part of a different, far less insane movie.
The special effects are intentionally goofy, and except for alligators walking on their hind legs and an accidental meld of Toe's parents, they never really capitalize on the rock's ability to grant literally any wish. And as the stories progress and come closer together, it becomes clear that this wild wish-fulfillment fantasy is leading only to a rote lesson about family togetherness and the perils of technology. Even the rules of the wishing rock aren't consistent-- sometimes characters can wish back whatever horrible monster they've accidentally unleashed, but at other times they're holding the rock and running for their lives.
There's no doubt that young kids will be rapt by this movie, but anyone ushering them to the theater would be better off taking frequent breaks just to rest their eyes. Rodriguez still has a way with kids, and throws in gags and adventure that panders directly to them without condescension. But there are some kinds of kids' fantasies that transport adults as well. This one doesn't even come close.