Writer-director Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, presented as "A Rodriguez Family Movie Based on the Stories and Dreams of Racer Max" (his 7-year-old son), is as sweet and hopeless and silly as a doting dad framing his second-grader's latest finger-painting and calling it a Matisse.
A tale of a boy fantasist who discovers his imaginary superhero friends are real, it is no more amusing or compelling than a visit to a distant cousin's rumpus room. Rodriguez showed a gift for rough-and-ready, quick-witted family fare in his first Spy Kids movie; it wrought more funny twists on the "family that slays together, stays together" formula than today's semi-adult opening, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But Spy Kids 2 was mediocre, and Spy Kids 3-D was just about rock-bottom Rodriguez - until Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.
Reality and fantasy intersect in haphazard and bewildering ways, and it's hard to decide which is flimsier. In the framing story, grade-school pariah Max (Cayden Boyd) treads emotional minefields planted by a dreamer dad (David Arquette), a hard-driving professional-gal mom (Kristin Davis), a bully named Linus (Jacob Davich), an insensitive teacher (George Lopez) and the teacher's crush-worthy daughter (Sasha Pieterse).
In the fablelike midsection, Max discovers that his intense imaginings have brought to life the shark-raised Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner), who's become part shark himself (though he uses his ferocity for good), and SB's best friend Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley), who suffers through an identity crisis because she doesn't know whether her fiery super-powers are essentially creative or destructive.
They whisk Max to a kids' paradise, Planet Drool, where darkness has fallen because Max's nemesis, Linus - renamed Minus - has stolen Max's dream journal and used it to cook up nightmares that come true, with the help of his TV-on-legs sidekick, Mr. Electric (Lopez again) and Mr. Electric's vicious plug-hounds. That prepubescent heartthrob Pieterse shows up there too, as an Ice Princess with an overprotective guardian (Lopez yet again).
It might have been fun to see Rodriguez toss every whimsy he or his son could think up into an ice-cream soup of a story, including the heroic trio's experiences on the Passage of Time, the Train of Thought, the Stream of Consciousness and the Sea of Confusion. But this movie was made Off the Top of the Head - there's no compelling pattern to its cascade of metaphors. And it's hard to see anything at all in it. Instead of offering supernal clarity, Rodriguez's 3-D provides visual sludge that oozes without thrills over the corner of the frame. His rationale for the fuzziness - the fading of Planet Drool - proves to be fatally self-defeating. Rodriguez cooks up a celestial theme park, then grays it out.
Even worse, he starts issuing climactic morals - dream with your eyes open; dream dreams that are good for others, not just yourself - that feel no less tacked-on when computer imagery does the tacking. The key Earth-to-Drool parallels are often bogus or bewildering. Max's parents, like Sharkboy and Lavagirl, stay together despite misfiring chemistry because they're still best friends.
Rodriguez's brother and sister contributed to the script; his other sons, Rebel and Rocket, took small acting roles and suggested designs for the film; and his wife, Elizabeth Avellan, produced it. If you don't see Sharkboy and Lavagirl, the group effort sounds inspiring. If you do see it, you'll hope Rodriguez and his clan will start to keep their home movies to themselves.
Sharkboy and Lavagirl
Starring Cayden Boyd, Taylor Dooley, Taylor Lautner, David Arquette, Kristin Davis
Directed by Robert Rodriguez in 3D
Released by Dimension
Time 94 minutes
Sun Score *1/2 (1 star and 1 half star)