CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL IN 3-D (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Rodriguez

FEATURING: George Lopez, Cayden Boyd, Taylor Lautner, Taylor Dooley

PLOT:  Dreamy young Max invents the imaginary superheroes Sharkboy and Lavagirl from

Still from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D (2005)

Planet Drool to brighten his dull existence; when his dream journal is stolen by a schoolyard bully, Planet Drool is taken over by tyrants and his imaginary friends whisk him away to his disintegrating dream world to set things right.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The childishly imaginative The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D shows all the evidence of having been taken out of the hands of the original scenarist, 7 year old Racer Max Rodriguez, and script-doctored to fit into a kiddie film format that would be more comfortable for adults.  The tale heads off in weird directions, obliterating the line between fantasy and reality as it meanders down a stream-of-consciousness style from superheroes to roller coasters to electrical plug villains to omniscient floating head robots.  It’s a near-perfect exhibition of the hyperactive schizophrenia of a typical seven-year old.  So far, so good; but then, someone—my money is on director Robert Rodriguez—imposed a standard three-act structure on the story, smoothed out the non-sequiturs, and tossed in a moral about realizing your dreams to placate stern, rational adults.  Had they stuck to Racer’s original vision, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, as the first script actually written by a seven year old, might have turned out as one of the weirdest movies ever made.

COMMENTS:  Sharks are not weird.  Pomegranates are weird.  I base this conclusion on the fact that the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov once chose to make a weird movie about pomegranates, but no one has ever made a weird movie about sharks.  Sharks are b-movie heavies, excuses for bad special effects and senseless gratuitous violence.  They serve the same cinematic purpose as other non-weird bad guy archetypes like giant spiders, psychotic killers in hockey-masks, and Paris Hilton.

Mega-sharks, on the other hand, may be weird, but I thought of them too late.

Robert Rodriguez, who alternates making weirdish adult cult movies like Grindhouse and Sin City with wacky children’s movies like the Spy Kids series, loves sharks, a love affair that began when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws premiered on his 7th birthday.  For recreation, he goes scuba diving in shark-infested waters in a steel cage.  He’s passed down his obsession with sharks to his son Racer, who, between the ages of six and seven, made up the character of Sharkboy in stories he told to amuse himself.  In an attempt to recapture the spirit of youth and create a movie that would appeal to directly to kids with as little adult intervention as possible, the elder Rodriguez took Racer’s ideas, dialogue and plot sketches (as verbatim as he could while still making a reasonably coherent movie), cast professional talent in the key roles, and directed his son’s daydreams in front state of the art green-screen special effects as The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.
Sharkathalon!
I say this to explain why a weird movie website is covering a semi-weird, shark-lite, non-horror movie for the b-movie roundtable SHARKATHALON!, “week-long tribute to everything that has to do with sharks and horror films” scheduled to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the release of Jaws.  Fans of the toothy marine predators looking for tales of blood in the water, prepare for something completely different.

With those flimsy justifications out of the way, let’s jump into Racer’s kiddie shark pool, where the chum floating in the water isn’t chunks off a great white’s latest victim, but shreds of childhood dreams.

First off, forget 3-D.  Part of the reason this film was originally panned is because the 3-D effects, which came along at the very tail end of the red-blue glasses era and just before the contemporary polarized glasses became standard, just didn’t measure up.  The DVD comes with red-blue glasses and offers viewers the chance to torture themselves with them should they so wish, but most will be happy to stick to the standard flat-viewing experience.

The adventures begin with Sharkboy’s origin story: son of a marine biologist, separated from his father and lost in a CGI sea after a storm, adopted by talking sharks; naturally, his exposure to the sharky lifestyle results in him growing gills, fangs and fins.  Lavagirl, the affirmative-action superheroine added to tap into the lucrative girl market, doesn’t get an origin story; she just shows up one day soon thereafter to snatch Sharkboy to Planet Drool (“the planet so cool, it makes you drool”) to deal with an unspecified crisis.

A couple of words about the two principals.  Lavagirl, as played by Taylor Dooley, is acceptable kiddie performer and provides a sympathetic ear for the young protagonist; but, basically, her costume overwhelms her performance.  She’s outfitted in a pinkish-purple wig (admittedly, a less exotic hairstyle today than it once was).  Her costume, made of hard plastic sculpted to look like pink rock, has glowing veins of orange lava running through it.  The most disturbing fact about her getup, which no one seems willing to comment on, is that two of the rocky planes that comprise her uniform just happen to meet on her upper torso to create the tiniest suggestion of nipples.  The costume is also outfitted with plastic hips that are just slightly wider than a typical pre-teen’s.  I am not accusing Lavagirl’s costume designer of being a Lolita-loving perv, but I’m surprised that no one else has mentioned the subtle sexualizing of the design.

Sharkboy, played by another Taylor (Lautner), is the heavy of the duo.  Churlish, sarcastic and quick to anger, though in an adorable way, he threatens to bash the protagonist’s head in more than once.  His costume is a standard Batman-inspired molded plastic number with fake washboard abs.  Basically, he’s a bit of a punk kid, but he does have one great attribute: Lautner is a terrific martial artist and does all his own stunts in the film, including some impressive backflips.  It’s too bad that contemporary casting agents are ignoring this guy’s talent; instead of wasting away in tween crap like Twilight, he could be forging a truly special career in direct-to-DVD martial arts movies with snappy titles like Kill Until Death or Driven to Maim.  Let’s wait a few years and check back on that, shall we?

Back to our regularly scheduled plot synopsis: It turns out that what we have been seeing is Max relating the back stories of Sharkboy and Lavagirl to his 3rd grade class as his “What I Did Over the Summer” report, which rightfully earns him the derision of his classmates.  When Max insists against all logic and reason that the tale is true, his teacher, the oddly named Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez), gives him some very convincing advice about the necessity of abandoning one’s dreams.  But Max’s life gives him plenty of motives for escapism.  His parents are on the verge of divorce due to the fact that dad’s a deadbeat writer, he’s friendless, and schoolyard bully Linus steals his dream journal.  Adding insult to injury, the family lives directly across the street from school (dad moved them to save on gas money), so Max can never quite forget his dread of returning to class for another round of humiliation from his pint-sized peers.

Fortunately for Max, just when his childhood troubles—divorce, getting sent to the principal’s office—seem about to drive him into a pre-puberty nervous breakdown, the real Sharkboy and Lavagirl appear in an electrical storm, wreck his classroom, shame his disbelieving classmates, and whisk him way to help deal with the crisis on Planet Drool.  After a quick ride in a shark-shaped spacecraft, they wind up on Planet Drool, where the surface looks like a half dozen multi-colored lava lamps spontaneously exploded onto a Yes album cover.  Since Max dreamt up the planet, he has the omnipotence necessary to turn back the encroaching darkness and defeat the evil Mr. Electricity; but, he can’t remember how to use his dream powers.  Electricity (played by Lopez’ head) is Sharkboy‘s greatest invention.  George Lopez’s face crammed into a distorting convex watch case, with limbs formed from live electrical currents, is the stuff of childhood nightmares; almost as frightening to a kid as the prospect of sitting through an episode of “The George Lopez Show” would be to a grown-up.  Electricity’s dastardly plan is to keep all of Drool’s kids trapped on an eternal roller coaster ride so they can’t ever dream (as this would be very bad for him, since he’s a bad guy and the movie is pro-dreaming).

Electricity sics his gang of electrical plugs (“the plughounds”) on the trio, giving Lautner the chance to demonstrate his martial arts skills.  Thanks to Max’s inability to dream up godlike powers for himself, though, the three are defeated and banished to the Dream Graveyard—when they really needed to get to the Dream Lair, for reasons that are completely unclear.  Max spends the rest of the movie trying to dream, but at first he can’t fall asleep, thanks to hunger.  Meanwhile, Sharkboy appears to be fighting off the delirium tremens, swatting at floating bubbles with smiley faces that magically appear.  In the Graveyard Max finds Tobor, his old discarded robot head (long story) who uses his magic powers to send the team off to the Land of Milk and Cookies, for some reason.  Abandoning Tobor, who’s now been “freed” (somehow), the trio hops onto the Train of Thought, which steams its way through a forest of brain stems (the cerebellums are in season, blooming with a healthy green glow) towards their destination.  Once there, they float on a cookie raft down a river of milk past sundae mountains, while Max tries to nod off on a marshmallow pillow.  The tyke’s a bit over-stimulated, however; Sharkboy’s break-dancing lullaby gives him nightmares, and the appearance of Electricity’s latest hunters, electrical plugs fashioned into T-Rexes, interrupts his nap.

Fortunately, Max is already learning to dream while awake, and so dreams up an amphibious fudge-spitting banana-split mobile for the team to escape down the Stream of Consciousness, which leads them to an ice bridge they need to cross to get to the domain of the Ice Princess so they can grab the Crystal Heart (one of the great, disorienting things about Sharkboy is that a new plot point pops up about every 90 seconds).  Before they can make it across the ice bridge, they’re captured by Electricity and his plughounds and taken to meet the real tyrant of planet Drool: the bully that stole Max’s dream journal, Linus (here called Minus).  They’re imprisoned, but Sharkboy’s uncontrollable violent proclivities become an asset when those hallucinatory floating smiley-face bubbles appear again, singing an annoying song that drives him into an insane frenzy that gives him the strength to burst the bars of the cage.

Somehow, the trio dreams their way into the Ice Palace, which leads Max marrying the Ice Princess (a doppelgänger of his schoolmate Marisa, who’s also Mr. Electricidad’s daughter) in a creepy prepubescent wedding ceremony performed by her father, a giant ice cube, so he can get his hands on her Crystal Heart.  After Electricity finally manages to kill Sharkboy and Lavagirl using electric eels, the floating robot head appears, shades of Obi-wan Kenobi, and advises Max to dream a better dream, which makes Sharkboy come to life so he can revive Lavagirl by throwing her into a convenient volcano.  This naturally completes Max’s dream power (although what the Crystal Heart and the rest of the plot had to do with anything is anyone’s guess) and brings us to the climax.  Lavagirl becomes a beacon of light who drives away the encroaching  darkness (remember the encroaching darkness?)  Max uses his omniscient dream power to unfreeze Drool’s oceans (who knew they were frozen?) so that Sharkboy can sic his marine minions on Mr. Electricity.  It’s oddly satisfying (emphasis on “odd”) to watch a school of sharks chew on a pocket-watch with George Lopez’s face.  Max becomes the Daydreamer, the One Who Can Dream with His Eyes Open, and heads to the featured showdown with Linus.  The Evil One dreams deadly flying piranhas, and wimpy Max ripostes by encasing them in non-violent bubbles.  After a few fantasy feints, Max stuns Linus with a literal brainstorm: dozens of plummeting gray organs splattering on the ground; he follows with a brain freeze/brain fart combo, and Minus is on the ropes.  But before Max can truly defeat Linus and toss him to Sharkboy’s shark army to rend him from limb to limb, slating the audience’s juvenile bloodlust, political correctness (kid’s style) intervenes, and Max and Linus learn to accept one another’s differences and become fast friends instead.

That should lead to the epilogue, but there’s still a little more climax to go.  Max wakes up from his dream back in the classroom; but now that he dreams while wide awake, his rogue dreams can invade the real world.  A pissed Mr. Electricity, never a party to the Treaty of Drool, storms Max’s classroom, and Electridad’s daughter has to use her ice crystal to freeze his circuits.  Meanwhile, Max’s parents decide to get back together as they’re being blown about by the storm, with a little help from Lavagirl.  That brings us to the epilogue, where everybody gets to live out their dreams, the door is left open for an unlikely sequel, and Max tosses off a final lame platitude about the power of sticking to your dreams.

Fortunately for Sharkboy, the moral babble about realizing your dreams (as in goals) never gets in the way of dreaming your dreams (as in the pretty pictures that float before your eyes when you drift out of consciousness).  On Planet Drool, psychedelic vistas and hallucinatory terrain abound, from the slopes made of fruit sherbet to the forests of brains.  The color scheme is vibrant, neon, and hyperreal, the scenery cartoonish and stylized, and the story seems to be inventing itself as it goes along.  Much of the time the movie really does give the impression of being the work of a seven year old auteur; these are the most interesting parts.

Sharkboy is a movie with the power to divide families; it totally absorbs kids, but makes their parents want to tear their hair out.  Though it’s far from a perfect movie, I lean to the kids’ side on this one.  Junior can’t see things from an adult perspective, but dad and mom should be able to remember what it was like to be a kid.  Nowadays, when grown-ups go to see a children’s movie, they expect something that caters to their narrow parental tastes.  Adults crave predictability, familiar plot lines, stock characters, and recognizable celebrity voice talent like Ed Asner or Eddie Murphy making tasteful double entendres and pop culture references intended to sail over their progeny’s heads.  Kids don’t expect any of these things, because they haven’t learned what “proper” assembly-line movies look like yet.  For an adult, watching a genuine kid’s movie like Sharkboy can and should be a temporary vacation from rationality.  Leave your knowledge of mortgages and original sin behind, and remember how weird the world is when seen through the eyes of a seven year old.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once again employing abundant blue-screen wizardly and state-of-art high-def vid technology, helmer Rodriguez drops his actors into a fantastical realm of cartoonish surrealism… . Special effects appear at once playfully cheesy and intricately sophisticated, reinforcing the overall impression of ‘Sharkboy and Lavagirl’ as an elaborate home movie fairy tale produced by a child-prodigy computer whiz.”–Joe Leydon, Variety (contemporaneous)

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