Austin auteur Robert Rodriguez continues his two-track production machine–on this side adult product like “Sin City” and on that kiddie fare like the “Spy Kids” franchise–by adding to the latter with the unfortunately-titled “Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl,” an effects-laden comic-book-style farrago that, like the last “Spy Kids” movie, offers chunks of its footage in 3-D. Essentially it’s a celebration of juvenile creativity, told through a story about a kid named Max (Caydon Boyd) whose invented characters Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) come to life and draw him into a great effort to save Planet Drool, their fantastic homeworld, from a villain called Minus, who’s attempting to destroy its beauty and happiness by annihilating the source of its existence, the capacity to dream–especially in Max himself. But the movie itself is nothing to celebrate: it’s a garish, cluttered piece of plasticine whimsy that’s as derivative as it is leaden.
The template for Rodriguez’s tale is clearly “The NeverEnding Story,” the young person’s novel by Michael Ende that Wolfgang Petersen made into a film of great charm in 1984. There the young hero was Bastian, a put-upon lad whose reading of a mystical book literally made him a part of a narrative in which a young warrior named Atreyu struggled to save a land called Fantasia from obliteration at the hands of a force called The Nothing; the message there was the enjoyment–and power–of reading rather than of writing per se, but since the act of reading was portrayed as something active rather than passive, and thus an act of imagination and creativity akin to Max’s dreams and his notebook scribblings, it amounts to much the same thing. Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s take on the subject has nowhere near the magic and elan of Petersen’s. The characters he’s fashioned (supposedly with his eight-year old son Racer, who gets a screenplay credit) just aren’t all that interesting, with Max little more than a nice kid troubled by bullies and his hapless parents’ (David Arquette and Kristen Davis) tendency to argue, and his creations a curiously uncharismatic pair. (Barret Oliver’s Bastian and Noah Hathaway’s Atreyu were much more engaging figures in Petersen’s film.) But it’s the villains who prove especially pallid. George Lopez is stuck in a whole bunch of hopeless roles as Max’s teacher Mr. Electricidad and Mr. Electric, a clocklike meanie with his human face where the dial ought to be. That’s bad enough, but when the identity of Electric’s boss Minus is finally revealed, it’s not only completely unsurprising but deadly dull, too.
That pretty much leaves the picture to be carried along by its slambang action episodes and the effects that fill them, and here too “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” leaves a great deal to be desired. The Planet Drool has a few amusingly-named locales–a Stream of Consciousness down which the intrepid trio must coast, a Train of Thought they have to ride, and a Land of Milk and Cookies they must traverse–and some other modestly clever touches (the talking sharks who raise Sharkboy after his human family is lost are reasonably engaging, too), but it’s not at all an enchanting place. And the effects, like those in the “Spy Kids” movies, are more cheesily glitzy than exhilarating. That’s understandable since they were made in Rodriguez’s private CGI studio, and very occasionally it can even lend a sort of homely charm to the enterprise, but over the long haul any fun they afford palls. On the other hand, the child actors here are a distinct improvement over their counterparts in “Spy Kids.” But though Boyd is a pleasantly bland kid, Dooley has a certain Amazonian quality that fits, and Lautner (as the adolescent Sharkboy earlier essayed by two of the Rodriguez children, Rebel and Racer) possesses the athletic chops to handle his part, none of them shows any special spark. The adults fare even less well, with Lopez all over the map and Arquette and Davis utterly lost.
Another drawback to Rodriguez’s movie is his decision to shoot substantial portions of it in 3-D. By the highest contemporary standards–IMAX 3-D in particular–the format he employs is distinctly third-rate, no better in fact than what older viewers will recall from the 1950s. When the 3-D portions of the picture unroll (viewers are told when to put on and take off the chintzy cardboard glasses that are provided), most of the color is drained from the images and everything looks murky and indistinct. The few jumping-out moments are hardly adequate compensation for the losses, and even children are likely to sigh in relief when things go back to normal flat-screen.
The sum total of all this is a kiddie flick that may appeal to the smallest of fry–especially boys–but overall has a hand-me-down, hectoring feel that will undoubtedly turn off older kids and parents. Anybody who’s seem “The NeverEnding Story” should feel especially cheated, and anybody who hasn’t should go out and rent it instead.