— Parents who get drafted to take their little knee-biters to see “Shorts” can enjoy the prospect of William H. Macy battling a giant booger-monster and of James Spader and Jon Cryer renewing their on-screen feud from “Pretty in Pink.”
But make no mistake: “Shorts” is unapologetically aimed at kids, and kids should have themselves a great time at this silly, energetic adventure that manages to encompass crocodiles and pterodactyls, dung beetles and mudholes, psychic infants and infinite candy bars, comeuppance for mean grown-ups and schoolyard bullies. And that booger-monster.
Our hero, Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), tells a wild tale as a series of vignettes — or shorts — tossed about out of sequence. (Why should “(500) Days of Summer” have all the inverted-narrative fun?) He finds a rainbow-colored wishing rock that can turn any of the holder’s whims into reality, so Toe — who gets stuffed into a trashcan everyday at school by the evil brother-sister team of Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) — wishes for friends.
The rock summons a group of mischievous aliens who do everything from fixing Toe’s orthodontically-challenged teeth to whipping up gourmet meals, but eventually these little ETs wind up being more hassle than help. Toe learns he’s not the first to have had wishes on the rock go awry, as new pal Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) tells him about having to rescue the rock from the stomach of a bi-pedal crocodile and winding up with a super-intelligent baby sister who communicates with her mind.
(The genius-infant bit, incidentally, results in some of the funniest baby-reaction-shots ever committed to celluloid.)
Meanwhile, Toe’s parents (Cryer and Leslie Mann) are leading rival teams trying to improve a do-it-all doohickey called the Black Box, a device around which their entire town revolves since everyone works for the cruel Mr. Black (Spader). (His parental advice to Cole and Helvetica includes gems like, “It’s not bullying if you win.”)
Everyone in town — including Dr. Noseworthy (Macy) and his nose-picking son — get their hands on the rock at some point, which leads to more and more chaos. Thankfully, Rodriguez never lets things get too noisy or chaotic to follow, and he wraps everything up in a satisfying resolution that even slips in a stealth moral or two.
He’s also cast the movie wisely, from its compelling youngsters — Vanier, in particular, should take the tween-goth crown from its previous holder, Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams — to its adult stars, who know they’re in a silly kids’ romp but never play it too arch or campy.
Perhaps the cast went back and looked at the seminal work of Dean Jones in Disney flicks like “Snowball Express” and “Million Dollar Duck.” Those are the kinds of vintage kids’ movies that the 41-year-old Rodriguez probably grew up watching, and “Shorts” — unlike so many movies these days aimed at the under-12 crowd — proudly carries on that tradition of entertaining, silly, non-bland family flicks.