Dream Child 

Robert Rodriguez and his kids conjure up a charming 3-D fantasy.

Robert Rodriguez just keeps cranking 'em out. This hasn't always been a good thing -- Spy Kids 2 and 3 felt rushed in a way that the first one didn't, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico looked cheap compared to its cinematic predecessor, Desperado. But the more Rodriguez keeps at it, the better handle he seems to have on the digital tools available to him. Sin City was a striking triumph of visuals, and his latest movie for kids, The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3D, plays like a more polished, better-looking second draft of Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

In that previous 3-D experiment, the graphics could remain more primitive with the explanation that they were not representing reality, but video games; the story was also burdened by the director's compulsive need to include all previous major characters from the Spy Kids saga. The result was fun to watch but utterly insubstantial storywise, as if adding a dimension to the visuals meant taking one away from the script. This time, Rodriguez has started a new story featuring characters dreamed up by his seven-year-old son Racer Max. And they literally are dreamed -- most of Sharkboy & Lavagirl takes place in a fantasy world called Planet Drool, inspired as much by the likes of Maurice Sendak and Little Nemo comics as by Nintendo.

The dreamer of the story is Max (Cayden Boyd), a young boy who has trouble discerning the difference between fantasy and reality, so he truly believes that his invented superheroes Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) are real, and says as much in front of his entire class. Naturally, this draws mockery from most of them, and if that isn't bad enough, his dad is David Arquette. The horror!

Max' parents aren't getting along, and his teacher, Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez, who also provides several character voices in the dreamworld), is a bit of a hardnose. Blah blah blah, there's some stalling until the 3-D finally kicks in, and Sharkboy and Lavagirl show up to whisk Max away to Planet Drool, which is dying due to its dreams being corrupted by an evil force who closely resembles the school bully (Jacob Davich) and Megaman-like cyborg Mr. Electric (Lopez' face on a CG body).

Fittingly enough, the plot from there on out follows dream logic, with settings constantly shifting and rules of reality ever changing. Even Sharkboy and Lavagirl's powers are arbitrary -- sometimes they seem able to fly, but at other moments they're afraid of falling off a bridge. In an R-rated action movie, this sort of thing might be a frustration, but kids really won't mind, and they don't necessarily require life-or-death jeopardy in this kind of light-hearted fantasy. For adults, there are some smart Phantom Tollbooth-style puns involving the Train of Thought, the Stream of Consciousness, a brain storm (thousands of brains falling from the sky), and so on. For the record, this is the correct way to engage parents, as opposed to the simple-minded technique of imitating scenes from other movies (à la Shrek 2 and Madagascar).

This being the mind of a kid raised in the video-game era, however, there are lots of scenes involving either preposterous roller-coaster contraptions or the necessity of jumping from one suspended aerial platform to another (ironic that the actual Super Mario Bros. movie had no such scenes). There are also creations only a kid would think of, including some nifty doglike creatures made up entirely of extension cords.

As Sharkboy, a young oceanographer raised by talking sharks, Lautner is a rare standout -- a child actor with a dark side. His lullaby song to Max, consisting of threats to punch him in the face if he doesn't fall asleep, is hilarious, and his martial arts skills (the kid is a black belt!) are impressive. The only strike against him is that, much like a few other children on display, he does look a little too much like a child actor rather than a real kid. Dooley has been even more obviously groomed to be aware of her looks, but at least her performance is solid too.

As for the 3-D, well, it's still blue and red. Fitting theaters nationwide with screens that match the standards for gray polarized lenses is still too costly and will probably have to wait for James Cameron's next film. The glasses aren't especially comfortable to wear either. As a nifty touch for kids, though, there are two styles available: lava glasses for girls and shark glasses for boys. Expect fights to break out between the kids if slow-witted theater ushers get this wrong, as the difference in styles is noted within the film itself.


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