Robert Rodriguez is at his enfant terrible game again, for the second time this year. After he quit the Director’s Guild of America in order to have Frank Miller credited as co-director of Sin City, he now offers The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, for which his seven-year-old son, Racer Max Rodriguez, is given writing credits for story and screenplay. As the film’s production notes detail, “Racer Max had been drawing up, dreaming about and spinning tales of Sharkboy and Lavagirl for quite some time before Rodriguez decided to transform them into a motion picture.”
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with turning the imaginative fantasies of a child into a film; in fact it suggests in inherent respect for children’s intelligence (or at least one kid’s), and might ensure Sharkboy and Lavagirl‘s success with its intended audience. But there’s nothing necessarily worthwhile about this undertaking either. The major problem with Sharkboy is that its story is so incessantly derivative. I don’t want to harsh on little Racer Max too much, or squash his burgeoning writing career. But Sharkboy and Lavagirl is cobbled together from a child’s favorite bits and pieces from his favorite stories, films and pastimes.
The film follows an essential video game-like structure, with different challenges at different levels, flashy imagery, and thrill rides galore. The central story—in which a little boy, Max (Cayden Boyd), must save Planet Drool (his fantasy world) from an encroaching “darkness”—comes directly from The Never-Ending Story (1984). Max must also seek out the help of the Ice Princess (Sasha Pieterse), just like Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) had to seek the aid of the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) in that film. Sharkboy is structured like The Wizard of Oz, in which the central character’s dreams are populated by versions of central people in his life. When Max meets Minus (Jacob Davich, who also plays the bully Linus), the big-bad on Planet Drool, Minus appears in holo, like our first meeting with “Oz, the Great and Powerful.” On Planet Drool, the “Land of Milk and Cookies” appears Racer’s rewrite of the board game, Candyland.
While these cribbings will likely be a distraction for adults in the audience, the grade-and-middle-school set probably won’t notice them at all. In fact, Sharkboy and Lavagirl has the garish colors, fast-paced action, childhood anxieties, and child actors/characters that will delight kids. Furthermore, a number of “lessons” are designed for parents to appreciate: it’s important to cultivate a child’s creativity, and childhood bullying is bad.
Max is an unpopular kid who retreats to his fantasy life to escape school bullies, homework, and troubles at home. On Planet Drool, superheroes Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) lead the kind of exciting life, and have the awesome powers that Max can only dream. Out in the real world, Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez), Max’s schoolteacher, encourages Max’s inventiveness, but asserts he must give this up to focus on “serious” matters. At home, this tension is played out between Max’s Dad (David Arquette), an out-of-work, aspiring writer, and his no-nonsense Mom (Kristin Davis). He stresses the importance of letting kids’ imaginations roam free, she insists little boys (like Dad, too) must grow up, that it’s time to “push that dream aside and move on.”
Max’s fantasy world is not as far removed from reality as the adults all tell him, and one day during class the two come quite literally crashing together in a monumental storm (Wizard of Oz again). Sharkboy and Lavagirl appear at school to whisk Max away to Planet Drool, which is being threatened with destruction by Minus and his henchman Mr. Electric (George Lopez). Because Max has been trying to be a “good” boy and stay focused on the “real world,” Planet Drool has been left unattended and subject to other forces. So it’s up to Sharkboy and Lavagirl to teach Max about the real power of his dreams, and for Max to stop the “darkness” from spreading and save Planet Drool. Along the way, of course, he also reconciles his Mom and Dad’s troubled marriage and convinces Linus that being a bully is no good. The power of imagination and creativity might literally change the world.
As I said, the “lessons” are hardly arguable, and even if the story might not be so fresh, there’s little for concerned parents to object to in The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (even the violence is less than might been seen on standard afternoon kids TV). The only real objection I or other adults will have is that the film is in 3-D. Considering all Rodriguez’ technical advancements, you’d think he could work on some 3-D technology more sophisticated than the old red-and-blue screen. While the little ones in your lives will undoubtedly be thrilled by the film, adults beware: the only thing you’ll be leaving The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D with is a splitting headache.