Tormented by bullies, his stuffy teacher (George Lopez), and disapproving parents (David Arquette and Kristin Davis), Max (Cayden Boyd, "Dodgeball") retreats to his fantasy world where he interacts with the half-boy, half-shark Shark Boy (Taylor Lautner), and the fiery Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley). When the dynamic duo come calling for Max to help save their home, Planet Drool, from being overcome by darkness, the boy is whisked away for an adventure that will take his imagination to the limit.
In Austin, Texas, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has built himself a studio that can fulfill all of his cinematic needs. An influential proponent of digital cinema, Rodriguez barely has to leave his garage studio to capture the vast dreamlike landscapes he desires, or in the case of his spring hit "Sin City," instant dirty alleyways and crime-ridden streets. But what happens when the ease of CG becomes too much? When the ability to create anything out of thin air starts to atrophy the power of fantasy? With "The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D" (IMDb listing), Rodriguez finally finds the limits of his digital imagination.
When the first "Spy Kids" movie debuted in 2001, it was like a breath of fresh air. In a lethal family film landscape, Rodriguez's creation was a satisfying, inventive marvel, striking a balancr between CG and practical effects, and providing equal enjoyment for children and adults. Over the course of two sequels, the fun factor dropped considerably, with the filmmaker resorting to gimmicks and CG noise for the final installment, "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over." Rodriguez succumbed to the lure of easy digital landscapes and ADD storytelling, removing the last drop of ingenuity that I thought would never leave the franchise. "Lava Girl" is the next step down for Rodriguez. Removing anything that would appeal to adults, the film is a strictly "kidz only" affair, much like the last "Spy Kids" chapter.
Based on the "dreams" of Rodriguez's 7 year-old son, Racer (along with ripping off "The Neverending Story"), "Lava Girl" doesn't hide its juvenile plotting in the least. The picture has characters traveling to the land of milk and cookies, features some furious roller coaster action, a bizarre musical number, and spotlights a group of talking sharks. "Lava Girl" indulges all those wild imaginative whims of youth unlike most productions, and for that inspiration alone I give Rodriguez credit. This is a brave undertaking, but for anyone over 9 years of age, it's also a complete chore to sit through. Because the film is aimed so specifically at tickling children, Rodriguez has lost what made "Spy Kids" magical. With "Lava Girl" Rodriguez pursues an obnoxious tone that is aggravated by some rather lousy performances (Davis and Arquette simply look perplexed the entire time, and I'm not convinced it's acting), and the stillborn design of CG creatures. "Lava Girl" aims to please, but the sterile atmosphere of the film is uninteresting, exacerbating the already thin plot way beyond its limits.
As it was in the third "Spy Kids" feature, the gimmick here in "Lava Girl" is 3-D. But unlike in "Spy Kids," the 3-D effects do not get such a strident workout, and they're primarily used to flesh out the iffy looking fantastical environments of Planet Drool. Providing depth to CG backgrounds is great to see, if only this were a better film. Most of the effects are swallowed by the cheap nature of the 3-D presented, which frequently renders the image indecipherable and stutters the action. Rodriguez, once a master of the low-budget action sequence (see his masterpiece "Desperado"), has now become a slave to lethargic, overthought CG cinema, dulling his instincts to such a degree that "Lava Girl" simply lays on the ground, relying on its adolescent appeal to make it through the running time. "Sin City" had flashes of that feeling, but I never thought Rodriguez would give up so easily.
Undiscerning children who don't know better should be sufficiently enthralled by the colors presented in "Shark Boy & Lava Girl." However, those who know that Robert Rodriguez is capable of so much more will leave the theater depressed after seeing this talented filmmaker phoning it in for the first time in his career.
Filmfodder Grade: D