A lot of directors start their careers making short films. They’re quick, they cost a lot less than a feature and it works as a good showcase of talent if one can tell a full-fledged story in a short period of time. Neill Blomkamp proved himself through short films before he was given the keys to direct District 9. Shane Acker directed a short version of 9 before he was granted the go-ahead to make it a full-length feature. Robert Rodriguez directed a short film, called Bedhead, before he took his skills to the feature arena. Now, in a way, he’s returned back to his roots with Shorts.
Toby “Toe” Thompson is the requisite grade school loser. A “ten-year-old virgin,” if you will. He doesn’t have any friends at school, so he feels the need to create imaginary ones, which he plays Magic: The Gathering-like card games with. Perhaps this is the reason he has no friends, like a catch-22/chicken-and-egg conundrum. Due to his lone ranger status, he is picked on by bullies at school. There are two that stand out more than the rest: Cole and Helvetica Black. They’re a brother and sister team of mean, who live only to make Toe’s life miserable. That being said, Toe thinks Helvetica’s only lashing out at him, because she secretly has a crush on him.
Cole and Helvetica are the children of Mr. Black, who owns the Black Box Corporation, the central employment hub for Black Falls Community. Sort of how Cypress Creek revolved around Hank Scorpio’s Globex Corporation in “The Simpsons” episode “You Only Move Twice.” The Black Box Corporation produces an Apple-like device not surprisingly called, The Black Box. It’s literally an all-in-one gadget that has the ability to transform into a toaster, a Blackberry, a computer screen and any other electronic device one could possibly imagine. The Black Box Corporation happens to employ both of Toe’s parents and Mr. Black pits them in a competition against each other to devise a marketing strategy that will crush the Box’s opponents.
Things change for the Thompson family when Toe comes into possession of a rainbow-colored wishing rock. He wishes for new friends and is blessed with a team of tiny aliens and UFOs who can make gourmet meals, brush Toe’s teeth and attack the bullies at school. However, as we learned from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The wishing rock never seems to work the way the possessor desires and it freely changes hands from character to character getting each into sticky situations they find difficult to get themselves out of. Does the wishing rock cause more trouble then it’s worth? Perhaps so, but the biggest obstacle is keeping it out of the wrong hands.
The film is told is five short vignettes (six if you count the pre-credits “Episode Zero”), all very much tied to the other. Each short piece is focused on a different set of characters, but all serve the same through-line. If they weren’t chopped and rearranged, there’d be no reason to designate them as short films. Through voice-over, Toe pauses, rewinds and fast-forwards parts of the films he either needs to explain, we haven’t seen yet or have already witnessed. It all comes together in the end, but Rodriguez rarely gives any overlap between the time-shifting segments, which could be disorienting for young viewers, if they even care so much as to follow a story.
Younger viewers are exactly who the film is geared toward. Aside from the child characters and situations kids can quickly identify with, there’s a large Booger monster (perhaps Rodriguez’s answer to Kevin Smith’s poop monster from Dogma) that is sure to delight all pint-size nose-pickers, but hopefully guide them away from the unsanitary habit. Although the inclusion of easily recognized actors like William H. Macy, Leslie Mann or James Spader may attract older viewers’ attention, there’s little substance to maintain it. Unfortunately, there’s no Pixar-like age crossover to be expected.
Rodriguez, however, is still the true definition of an auteur. Sometimes the label is placed on directors who are able to visually put their stamp on any film they touch. Sometimes it’s put upon writer-directors who control their own vision or writer-director-producers who have only themselves to answer to. Rodriguez is the ultimate hyphenate as he performs the tasks of writer, director, producer, scorer, cinematographer, editor and visual effects supervisor. There’s no doubt he’s crafted the exact film he wanted to. If his intentions were to create a film for younger viewers, he’s succeeded.
I don’t begrudge Rodriguez for making films for his children and children everywhere as I’m happy his talents are being utilized at all. He’s still dedicated the same, if not more, of his career to more mature works. There’s still some enjoyment that can be squeezed out of this film for the older viewer and I’d much rather re-watch it over a handful of other films I’ve seen so far this year. One hopes he’ll return to the other career path he’s developed for his next project, though, and even if it’s a short film, I’ll be first in line.