Warner Bros. // PG // $35.99 // November 24, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 11, 2009
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Turns out...? That treasure you've been keeping an eye for at the end of the rainbow is actually twiddling its thumbs waiting for you at the beginning. Sure, it might look like any other ol' rainbow-colored, translucent stone, but nope. This is a wishing rock, and as you could hopefully guess from the name, that means it -- hey! -- grants wishes. You could milk an entire movie out of one person stumbling onto this sort of magical mojo, but writer/director/eighteen-other-slashes Robert Rodriguez opts instead to plop it into the hands of an entire town.

Black Falls is a sleepy little Texan suburb like any other, at least if you look past that colossal black office tower square in the middle. See, Black Falls is a community expressly for the employees of Black Box Unlimited Worldwide Industries Incorporated, and they can head to work and trot back home without ever stepping foot outside the neighborhood. Black Box only makes one product: the Black Box! They can get away with just churning out a single thing since it's 284,000 different products in one. You may think your iPhone has an app for that, but can it morph from a cellphone into an electric razor or a potato peeler with just a couple of button mashes? The thing is that the competition is starting to nip at the heels of the mighty Black Box, and CEO Carbon Black (James Spader) wants the next software release to bury knockoffs like the Purple Pyramid and the Silver Cylinder. Black pits two teams against each other to gun for the top prize. The winner scores a hefty bonus, and the loser has to pack the family's bags and thumb a ride back to Austin. The kicker...? The heads of the competing teams are husband and wife (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann). Oops! That means even if one of 'em wins, the entire family still gets the boot.

Yeah, so if someone on Black Box's payroll had tripped over the wishing rock, job security and a heckuva killer app would roll out, and I guess from there you'd fade to black and roll credits. It's their kids who stumble onto it first, though, and that's part of the reason why the movie's called Shorts: it unspools as five distinct vignettes, each time with someone else grabbing onto that wishing rock. The Thompsons -- y'know, that competing married couple I mentioned a few sentences back? -- have a kid named Toe (Jimmy Bennett). He doesn't really have any friends to speak of, so he wishes for some. The inch-high green men in their whirring UFOs aren't just master orthodontists and culinary geniuses either: they can make short work of the bullies that've been tormenting Toe at school...even their ringleader, the sinister
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Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier). Meanwhile, Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) just wants the ultimate playhouse, but when he starts wishing for a moat and a gaggle of cobras and crocodiles to protect his fortress, he and his brothers look like they're about to wind up on the dinner table instead. Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) spends every waking hour hermetically sealed inside his home with his germaphobe father (William H. Macy). Pop's inventions haven't been going so well lately, so he wishes they'd work as intended for once...and they do, including one that turns one of Nose's boogers into an oversized, oozing, cycloptic eating machine. That overentitled brat Helvetica eventually gets her mitts on the rock too, and as luck would have it, on the night of her father's lavish costume party to boot.

It's kind of funny to think that most people shrug off Robert Rodriguez' family movies as something he hammers out in between his more adult-oriented fare, but considering that this is his fifth kiddie flick this decade and that he's only helmed three R-rated films in that same time, it looks to be the other way around. I guess I'd just think that with that much practice, he'd be...a little better at this? It probably goes without saying that at 31, I'm not so much the target demographic for Shorts. Its frantic, fractured storytelling, anthropomorphic crocodile armies, flesh-eating boogers, and barrel drums of pterodactyl poop probably do appeal to your average 7 year old. A slew of movies have come out this year that I'd love to watch again with a kid -- Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, and Aliens in the Attic, just to rattle off a few -- but Shorts is kind of just an overcooked mess that's tough to trudge through if you have more than one digit in your age.

The movie unspools nonlinearly, and Toe's narration rewinds, fast-forwards, and pauses: with on-screen icons and everything! A more clever movie would take advantage of that and do a better job teasing and intertwining the rest of the segments. You might see someone from another part of the movie off in the corner or get a throwaway line in Shorts, but otherwise, there's really no point to its scattershot structure. Its sense of humor is pretty much straightahead cartoony slapstick, complete with unconvincing and...well, cartoony visual effects.
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Even with as visually ambitious as Shorts is, you can definitely tell it was shot on the cheap. Half of the young actors are pretty grating, the narration's surprisingly shaky (c'mon, you're in a recording booth; it's not that expensive to get a better take), and the dialogue creaks along with jabs like "Dr. Dumb-butt".

Maybe I'm just being too nitpicky about a movie where one kid's misspoken wish plants a phone through his head and another grants a 4-month-old superintelligence and telepathy, but even the rules of the rock seem half-thought-out. There's a point in the climax when a gigantic badnik is trashing the town, and the kids shout that they have to take turns with the wishing rock in order to take him down. Why? The menace that's staring 'em straight in the eye was created with one wish. If you can make it with one, why can't you un-make it with one more? There's no real logic to anything that happens, and it all builds up to a quadruple-underlined moral message about how technology is keeping us apart instead of bringing us closer together. There's never really any sense of awe at anything that's churned out here, and the premise opens up room for so much more imagination than what winds up being delivered. Heck, even with as much action as Shorts heaps on, it never really gets the blood pumping either.

Shorts isn't grating or annoying enough for me to scream "stay away!" from the rafters or anything, but...well, it's a comedy with hardly any laughs, it's an action flick that really isn't all that exciting, it's a movie that lets a gaggle of kids' most outlandish fantasies come to life yet winds up being lighter on imagination than it really ought to be, and it's a digital effects spectacle with dodgy VFX. The best thing I can say about it is that naming a character "Helvetica Black" brings the nerd in me rushing even further to the surface. It's more aggressively mediocre than outright bad, but with so many genuinely wonderful family movies out there on Blu-ray, why settle for Shorts? Kids...well, boys, really...might love it, but if you do wind up snagging Shorts on Netflix or something, you're better off darting out of the room as soon as you've mashed 'Play'. Rent It.

A digital production from top to bottom, Shorts looks pretty amazing in high-def. The 1080p video is consistently crisp and silky smooth, and the level of clarity and detail it continually lobs out never fails to impress. If anything, Shorts is so revealing in HD that it highlights how unconvincingly plastic and shiny a lot of the visual effects work can be. Colors are bright and vivid from start to finish, chucking out so many striking neon shades that it looks like someone knocked over a punch bowl filled to the brim with Jelly Bellys or something. Shorts has a solid sense of depth and dimensionality to show off, and black levels are deep and inky throughout. I couldn't spot any edge enhancement or hiccups in the VC-1 encode, and as clean as the 1.78:1 image is, no overzealous digital noise reduction leapt out at me either. Yeah, yeah, say what you will about Shorts as a movie, but as a Blu-ray disc...? Pretty slick stuff.

Because the movie's so short (no pun intended; pinky swear) and there really isn't all that much in the way of extras, Shorts fits on a single-layer platter with plenty of room to spare.

Shorts' 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is...well, about as spastic as the flick itself. The surround channels hardly ever stop screaming, what with a pterodactyl, a rocket bike, a wasp woman, a half-battalion of pint-sized UFOs, and snarling anthropomorphic crocodiles darting around the screen. Imaging and directionality are pretty thoroughly impressive throughout, from an oversized cyborg trashing everything in sight to something as kinda-sorta-mundane as conjoined parents diving into the bushes. Since Shorts is pretty much a wall-to-wall action flick, it's lugging around a really hefty low-end -- on the brink of tumbling over into too much, almost -- but even with as frantic and chaotic as the mix can get, dialogue isn't ever drowned out. The score tosses out thunderous, chugging guitars and more than a couple of theremins, and it's rendered remarkably well too. This is exactly the sort of playful, hypercaffeinated sound design a flick like Shorts screams out for.

Shorts belts out Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese as well. Subtitles are also served up in each of those languages along with an English (SDH) stream.

Kinda surprisingly for a Blu-ray disc with Robert Rodriguez' name on the bill, there really isn't all that much this time around. Heck, it feels like the opening reel of eighteen quadraseptazillion plugs and trailers runs about as long as all of the extras spliced together.

  • The Magic of Shorts (9 min.; HD):
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    The first of Shorts' four featurettes dives into the mix of digital and practical effects that are sloshed around in pretty much every last frame of the movie. "The Magic of Shorts" runs through all the pre-visualization -- kind of a moving storyboard -- along with the different stages of the booger monster and showing just how Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann were crammed into one body.

  • Shorts: Show and Tell (5 min.; HD): "Show and Tell" pals around with the pint-size cast for a few minutes, showing off a crocodile phlegm recipe, asking the kids what the highlights of the shoot have been and what they'd wish for if they had their own otherworldly rainbow rock, and Robert Rodriguez touching on which character he relates to the most.

  • Ten Minute Film School (9 min.; partially HD): The first few minutes of this featurette lob out helpful hints on how to spruce up your home movies: sound effects, colossal CGI robots...that sort of thing. Robert Rodriguez also compares excerpts from the demo reel he made to pitch Shorts with the finished, polished product. Most of the home videos are upconverted from standard-def, but the rest of this featurette is in HD.

  • Ten Minute Cooking School (10 min.; HD): With his too-cute daughter helping out every step of the way, Rodriguez shows off how to make a batch of chocolate chip volcano cookies.
Shorts comes packaged in a cardboard slipcase, and a digital copy for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices has been tossed onto the second disc in the set. It doubles as a standard definition DVD too, so between the two discs in this package, you can watch Shorts on pretty much anything, ever.

The Final Word
Shorts does feel as if it's been nicked straight out of an 8 year old's noggin, complete with "wait, wait, I forgot this part..." storytelling, a crocodile army darting around on two legs, a twelve-story robot, and -- why not? -- a booger monster. Kids might eat it up (and maybe I shouldn't have typed that right after 'booger'), but this is definitely the most mediocre and disposable of the family flicks from this summer that I've caught. With so many better movies clawing their way onto Blu-ray right now -- y'know, something parents might actually want to sit down with their kids to watch too, a mark Shorts definitely misses -- something this scattershot and kinda clunky is awfully tough to recommend. Rent It.

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