Boy meets script

The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D

Taylor Lautner, Cayden Boyd and Taylor Dooley star in a tale that only a child could conjure up.

Taylor Lautner, Cayden Boyd and Taylor Dooley star in a tale that only a child could conjure up.

Rated 2.0

The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D is the lumbering, ungainly title of the new movie written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. The movie itself, I’m happy to say, isn’t nearly as clumsy as its title. Whatever you can say about Rodriguez’s movies, they almost never lumber.

Rodriguez continues the flirtation with 3-D that he began in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over in 2003. Once again, however, he resorts to anaglyphic 3-D (the kind with the red-and-blue-lens glasses), and it’s still the cheapest and worst version of the process. It still only works in black-and-white (and not very well even then); in color, it gives a murky purple cast to the whole picture, like a window smeared with grape Jell-O. And if the viewer is (like me) left-eye dominant, the image can induce a headache that will ruin the rest of the day.

These are all complaints that I lodged in my review of Spy Kids 3-D two years ago. Back then, I said, “And without 3-D, Spy Kids 3-D has almost nothing to hook an audience.” That’s not the case, though, with Shark Boy and Lava Girl, which actually has its own oddball charms. Those who are not left-eye dominant, and who are not troubled by watching a color movie through red-and-blue glasses, might want to nudge this review’s popcorn rating up a notch.

Shark Boy and Lava Girl has a delightful gimmick: Rodriguez’s screenplay is “based on stories by Racer Max”—who is, in fact, none other than Rodriguez’s own 7-year-old son. By using his kid’s ideas in his script, Racer’s doting dad has had a kind of loopy inspiration. The basic framework of the story has the sort of playful whimsy you might expect of a particularly bright kid making up a story as he goes along.

The movie’s protagonist is 10-year-old Max (Cayden Boyd), who fills his notebook with tales of Shark Boy (Taylor Lautner), a human kid raised by sharks ever since his oceanographer dad’s floating lab was destroyed by a storm, and who has been swimming the seas ever since (with gills, fins and super-sharp teeth) searching for his lost father; and Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley), a young beauty with literally flame-red hair who emits molten rock from her fingertips. Max’s parents (David Arquette and Kristin Davis) and his teacher (George Lopez) chide Max for his wild imagination, and his classmates openly ridicule his claims that Shark Boy and Lava Girl are real. But they all sing a different tune when, in the midst of a looming tornado, both of Max’s super-kid pals show up to seek his help in saving Lava Girl’s home, Planet Drool.

You can’t think about it too much or ask too many questions. The movie really doesn’t “make sense” except on its own terms, but that’s what’s special about it. Who of us hasn’t sat with his kids—or nieces or nephews—and gently prompted them as they invented a story? They don’t know the “rules” of storytelling. They haven’t been indoctrinated into dramatic structure by reading Aristotle. They just say whatever pops into their heads and, if they must, come up with explanations after the fact—again, just off the top of their heads. If the kid is especially bright or imaginative, such free-association yarn-spinning can be a real eye-opener, and the way Rodriguez captures that kind of childlike amazement is his movie’s chief pleasure.

Alas, Rodriguez’s execution leaves something to be desired. For one thing, he doesn’t have the battery of reliable adult pros that helped sell the Spy Kids movies; Arquette and Davis are by far the most accomplished performers, but they have little more than cameos. Sitcom comic Lopez is awkward, hammy and amateurish. And, unfortunately, most of the movie’s child actors are weak performers, and Rodriguez seems too preoccupied with his digital 3-D effects to help them out; they speak their lines in a flat and perfunctory monotone, like Bible verses they were forced to learn for Sunday school but don’t really understand.

A little more attention to his performers and a little less diddling with bad 3-D, and Shark Boy and Lava Girl might have been a one-off cult classic, like Dr. Seuss’ 1953 The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Because, as odd as it sounds, Rodriguez was really on to something when he let his son concoct a story for him.