Robert Rodriguez makes playful films, deliciously, inventively so. That it's expressed in two wildly divergent ways is just proof of his talents; on one side the gleeful chaos of the Mariachi sequence, on the other children's films that do not patronise or disappoint.

This isn't part of the Spy Kids series, but it does share the same fondness for gadgetry - at its core are two devices with the power to affect its characters lives, the multifunctional Black Box and a lightning-enriched rainbow-coloured wishing rock. With an ensemble cast and a variety of stories to tell, Shorts is an entertaining whole made of satisfying parts.

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Professional child Jimmy Bennett is Toe Thompson, whose parents both work for Black Box Incorporated (Black Inc), and they (and his sister) live in a small Texan suburb built around the company's cubic office. They make the Black Box which works as a cellphone, toaster, cat basket, water softener, even that thing for getting stones out of horses' hooves. It has serious competition, however, in the Silver Cylinder and the Purple Pyramid, and the megalomaniacal Mr Black (James Spader) sets two teams against each other for the coming upgrade; the winner will become a partner in the firm, the loser will be fired, and they and their family will have to move out. Toe's mother, Leslie Mann (who's also in Funny People) leads one team, and Toe's father, Jon Cryer (Charlie Sheen's brother in Two And A Half Men) leads the other. It's not an ideal situation.

This is not the only problem to be faced. Rather than try to put all its narrative eggs in one basket, Shorts is made of, well, shorts. Each focuses on a subset of the cast, be it the staring competitions of The Blinkers, the hygeine paranoia of the Noseworthys (newcomer Jake Short and William H Macy), the adventure seeking of brothers Lug, Loogie, and Laser, or the Blacks, bullies all, from dad Carbon to son Cole to daughter Helvetica. She's got her own theme song, and is brilliantly played in a debut feature role by Jolie Vanier. She's pitch perfect, with black hair in this role, almost a dead ringer for Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams, and just as sociopathically inclined. With brother Cole to supply the muscle she spends her school days tormenting Toe.

The torments are pretty mild, there's a lot of people getting stuck into trash cans. The PG rating is mostly for the mild crude behaviour (bogey related humour is pretty central to the Noseworthys' interactions) and what's classed as 'mild comic threat' - there's a few monsters, and when some crocodiles get their hands on the wishing rock there are some consequences for the humans.

The cast are all good. Bennett and Vanier work really well together, and, as Loogie, Trevor Gagnon is really good, too. Rodriguez clearly has a knack for working with child actors, and while they've a wide mix of experience and roles, their performances are note perfect.

Rodriguez wears several hats for Shorts. Beyond writing, directing, producing, editing, cinematography-ing, and supervising the visual effects through Troublemaker, he also writes a song and has, it seems, provided about half the cast. Sons Rebel, Racer and Rocket are all present, as is his sister Tina and his niece Bianca too. Bianca's really good as Lug, Loogie and Laser's hyperintelligent little sister, 'the Baby'.

What would be a relatively slight tale is made much more intriguing by the presentation. Beyond the sophistication of admitting that some stories are too complicated to be told from a single perspective, the episodic nature makes it seem perfect for kids, both on the cinema screen and DVD. Each short is well judged, with a satisfying beginning, middle and end, plenty of incident and some brilliant lines: "So you think this canyon has enough doom?", "I didn't explode!", "Now your booger is going to eat you!" all stand out. Toe's narration is charming rather than forced, the adults are all clearly having fun, too.

It's rampantly silly, and lots of fun, Well paced, and more than clever enough to entertain adults while still being honest enough in its portrayal of children that they won't feel patronised. The effects are really well done, the myriad subplots tucked away in the six (seven counting the pre-credits sequence) shorts are all neatly tied up, and while there's no scene after the credits there is something important that happens in them - audiences that stay to see them will be treated to another, hidden, wish, which is well worth hanging about for.

With a Quentin Tarantino film out this week as well, fans of Grindhouse are spoiled again - while audiences under 18 can only enjoy one, those who are older will have a decision to make; which one to see first.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2009
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Shorts packshot
A collection of stories about the adventures that ensue after a young boy discovers a magical wishing rock.
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Director: Robert Rodriguez

Writer: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jake Short, Kat Dennings, Trevor Gagnon, Jolie Vanier, Rebel Rodriguez, Leo Howard, James Spader

Year: 2009

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UAE


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