You’ve got to hand it to Robert Rodriguez: the guy is versatile. Half of his films are violent and edgy adult-oriented fare such as From Dusk Till Dawn and the recent Sin City. The other half are imaginative family films like the Spy Kids series. His latest - The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D - falls into the latter category. After scoring major box office success with Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over flick, Rodriguez returns to the three-dimensional well. The problem is that 3-D, at least when done using those red/blue filtered glasses, is a fundamental distraction.
Based entirely on the dreams of Rodriguez’s son Racer, Sharkboy and Lavagirl tells the story of young Max (Cayden Boyd), a daydreamer who is routinely tormented by other students, including school bully Linus (Jacob Davich). The classroom teacher, Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez), tries to shield Max from the teasing of other children. One particular topic Max gets ribbed about is his dream journal, in which he details his fantasies about Sharkboy and Lavagirl, two superheroes he has dreamed up. One was raised by sharks and the other is able to shoot lava from her hands. These dreams are partly a mental escape from the tension between Max’s parents (David Arquette and Kristen Davis).
One day, Max makes a wish that he could escape the unhappiness of his life. Not long after arriving at school, Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) manifest themselves for real, barging into the classroom to request Max’s help fighting the evil Mr. Electric (also played by Lopez), a meanie who plans to control the dream world known as Planet Drool.
As with all Rodriguez’s films, there is a wonderful sense of imagination on display here. For instance, I love the scene where Max and the heroes journey through the “Land of Milk and Cookies” when they float down a river of milk on a giant chocolate chip-and-marshmallow cookie. Another terrific sequence finds the characters traveling through a maze of cuckoo clocks, where the birds fly out at us in 3-D. Despite being an adult, Rodriguez has never lost the playful qualities of childhood. Many family films go through the motions of creating “magic” but his really do create fantastical worlds of wonder.
I also have to say that the 3-D effects in Sharkboy and Lavagirl worked pretty well most of the time. Various objects appeared to pop out from the screen, and backgrounds appeared to have depth. The film finds clever uses for the technique (such as those cuckoo clocks) which will especially delight younger viewers.
But there are a couple problems with the movie and with the 3-D effect. Let’s start with the movie: Sharkboy and Lavagirl are really dull. Their super powers are less than impressive, and they don’t have much personality. Neither does Max. We’re supposed to follow these people on an amazing adventure, yet there’s nothing even remotely compelling about them. The Spy Kids, in comparison, had charisma and humor. We wanted to accompany them on their mission. For all the visual razzle-dazzle, this film is curiously lacking in the character department.
The other, more substantial, problem is that 3-D is just a drain. Watching the film with those red and blue tinted glasses washes all the color out of the picture. It has the effect of making the images look primarily black and white, with mild color tints. At one point, I took off my glasses to see how it looked without them. In order to achieve the 3-D process, the picture more or less is filmed in a sickly grayness. Considering the fact that Sharkboy and Lavagirl is packed wall-to-wall with fantastic worlds of imagination, I think I’d rather have seen them in color than in 3-D. Certainly it would have been easier to get captivated by the magic of Planet Drool if it was bursting with color. The 3-D makes the worlds seem more distant and off-putting. Sure, the concept of 3-D is cool, but it’s also a gimmick that can detract from the real joy of a movie by pulling you out of the story.
Rodriguez ends his film in 2-D, where a nice message about the power of dreams can be found. Although not as strong as the Spy Kids movies, I have no doubt that Sharkboy and Lavagirl would seem better than it does in only two dimensions. There’s a very good reason why 3-D has never really taken off. This movie is a perfect example of that reason.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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