Salvador Dalí — with perhaps a gentle nod to René Magritte — last night while sitting through Robert Rodriguez's ludicrous, yet oddly luscious new movie, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D." /> Salvador Dalí — with perhaps a gentle nod to René Magritte — last night while sitting through Robert Rodriguez's ludicrous, yet oddly luscious new movie, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D." />

Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Adventures of Cynic Boy and Design Mom in 3D

Left: Miramax Film Corp, ©2005. Right: Reddy Kilowatt Ashton B. Collins Sr. ©1926.

Now that summer is here and my children are out of school, I have embarked upon a series of seasonal activities familiar to working mothers everywhere. Such activities — shlepping foremost among them — frequently involve sitting in hyper-chilled movie theatres to watch PG-rated feature films which are, for the most part, really bad. When my children were younger and I could count on at least one of them ending up on my lap, I would routinely lean my weary head against their tiny shoulders and catch up on a few minutes of much-needed sleep. (Sleep-deprived parents can doze pretty much anywhere, and, I can say from hard-won experience, they generally seize any opportunity to do so.) Lately, though, I've managed to stay awake and, in spite of the tedium that characterizes most of these cinematic excursions, I've noticed a subtle, yet stunning undercurrent of Good Design.

Brainwashed I may be, but I distinctly noted an homage to Salvador Dali — with perhaps a gentle nod to René Magritte — last night while sitting through Robert Rodriguez's ludicrous, yet oddly luscious new movie, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D.

Let me say from the outset that the critics nailed it early on: it's a really lame excuse for a film, allegedly inspired by the whimsical imagination of the director's own 7-year old son. (As a sage editor of mine once said, "I love my children, but frankly, I see no reason to deify them." Sadly, Rodriguez seems to have missed this valuable little tidbit of parental wisdom.) Plot-free, poorly acted, inconsistently shot and with no shortage of saccharine illustrations of Family Values, there is precious little to redeem this tale of an innocent 9-year old misfit whose "dream journal" lands in the hands of the class bully. Ten minutes into the film, the 3D glasses go on for a headache-inducing hour of what I can only liken to a cinematic spin cycle: a protracted adventure-story-dream-sequence thus ensues, that includes a disembodied robot; oversized cookies used as a raft in a sea of warm milk; and a "dream graveyard" paved with dead, monochromatically-rendered toys. (In a small detail sure to prove irksome to the observant parent, even the Gameboy has been left for dead. Who among us can possibly keep up with the insatiable thirst for novelty demanded and dominated by the toy industry? And who would want to? That's no dream: that's a parent's worst nightmare.)

Yet buried in this haze of congested goofiness is a kind of arresting, surreal beauty. There's a scene with a series of clocks, floating aimlessly in midair, each a whimsical relic recalling a different period of analog or digital time. There's a river that's the protagonist's "stream of consciousness," and a runaway subway car that's his "train of thought." There's even a "brainstorm" — brains falling freeform from the sky in a kind of suspended animation that seemed the sort of thing De Chirico might have imagined. Gimmicky, yes — and to be sure, the metaphors here are so laden with Hollywood symbolism that the headache would have likely come about quite easily without the 3D glasses.

And yet, there's something enchanting about this loopy dream-world, a landscape of odd juxtapositions and delirious visual excess. At the core of the movie's dramatic eccentricity lies Mr. Electric, the movie's principal villain, who is based on a character introduced so briefly at the start of the film that it caused my cynical 9-year old companion, (Freudian-in-training that he is) to question the plausibility of his instantaneous metaphorphosis, a mere day into the school year — from mild-mannered teacher into sinister fiend. Yet to anyone over, say, the legal drinking age, Mr. Electric's a dead-ringer for spokestoon Reddy Kilowatt: only in this movie, it's not light but pure, obliterating darkness he craves. The symbolism at this point drips with a kind of self-satisfaction that only Hollywood could conjure: a duo of super-hero kids symbolize the triumph of natural elements — fire (Lava Girl) and water (Shark Boy) — as they set off to defeat the industrial villain who is dead-set on driving the planet to evil, technological ruin.

Now here's where I became positively giddy.

Mr. Electric's bad-guy posse consists not of thugs, but plugs — yes, the three-pronged kind, their long, electric-cord bodies snaking through the labyrinth of an underworld vaguely reminiscent of the Art Deco majesty of the 1939 World's Fair. Arguably, real fans of cartoon bad-guys might be better advised to sit through the equally tedious Madagascar, if only for a glimpse of those mobster penguins facing a Pinter-like moment of shocking self-awareness while stranded in an Antarctic blizzard.

Buried in Shark Boy and Lava Girl, if you can stay awake for it, is a brilliant send-up of a kind of marvelously retro view of the world of tomorrow: dark and menacing but deliciously utopian at the same time, like a Fritz Lang movie or a Hugh Ferriss drawing. References to surrealist heavyweights aside, this movie's destined, I fear, to tank at the box-office. But on a sleepy summer afternoon, there are perhaps a few worse things than retreating to a dark, cool place to watch clocks floating by in mid-air. At the very least, bring along a small child. Maybe you can lean against them, and nap.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Technology

Comments [6]

For me, the main question Jessica's experience begs (embedded artistic references aside) is why we keep going back to the movies, especially when we most often discover them to be, well, crap. Once bitten, twice as likely to go back again, or so it seems. (I must be among the worst repeat offenders on this score.) I think Louis Menand nailed it in a recent New Yorker article when he summed it all up thus: "The movie feels about twenty minutes too long; the reviews are mixed; nobody really loves it; and it grosses several hundred million dollars."

Key here, according to Menand, is that the massive marketing budgets involved are geared to pulling as many people in to as many screens as possible on the first weekend. That way the key gross has been made before word gets out that the movie sucks (think Pearl Harbor). It strikes me as a profoundly cynical business. No wonder Jessica was faced with the prospect of either taking a nap or eking out a modicum of pleasure by noting veiled (and likely unintended) cultural references.

Anyway, more Menand, just because: "The tickets, including the surcharge for ordering online, cost about the same as the monthly cable bill. A medium popcorn is five dollars; the smallest bottled water is three. The show begins with twenty minutes of commercials, spots promoting the theatre chain, and previews for movies coming out next Memorial Day, sometimes a year from next Memorial Day. The feature includes any combination of the following: wizards; slinky women of few words; men of few words who can expertly drive anything, spectacularly wreck anything, and leap safely from the top of anything; characters from comic books, sixth-grade world-history textbooks, or 'Bulfinch's Mythology'; explosions; phenomena unknown to science; a computer whiz with attitude; a brand-name soft drink, running shoe, or candy bar; an incarnation of pure evil; more explosions; and the voice of Robin Williams." Oi.
Matt Soar

Kids movies usually do stink. However, I liked Robert Rodriguez's other summer movie "Sin City." The visuals of that film were great -- true to its comic book roots, unlike those cheesy Spiderman/Batman/Xmen/Daredevil/Constantine/etc... movies. He's at least giving our eyes something fresh, even if his material is lame.

I understand Matt Soar's cynicism -- I absolutely hate "the Twenty" (that NBC commercial they show before a movie). As far as nice graphics in a movie I recommend "Hitchkier's Guide to the Galaxy." While not great, it used puppets for the aliens and the animated textbook was pretty sweet. And the credits of "Napoleon Dynamite" even got mentioned on this site last year. Good stuff! In other words if you have a dollar theater in your town, you'll feel less disappointed by Hollywood.

For your amusement, here are some excerpts from "Kids' Most Asked Questions About Electricity" (1993) by Mark O'Donnell, which imagines questions schoolchildren might ask of Reddy Kilowatt.

Q. Is that light-bulb head supposed to be cute?
A. You'll have to ask my designers, but I believe it's supposed to be indirectly educational.

Q. What, as if we never saw a light bulb beofre?
A. Not everyone has had your advantages.

Q. Why are your arms all crooked?
A. They're bolts of energy.

Q. Do you have a penis?
A. No.

Q. So, are you from outer space or what?
A. No, I'm just a drawing.

Q. Is it satisfying to flow through the body of a condemned killer?
A. No, I'm emotionless. As lightning, I strike innocent forest rangers and prairie housewives, too.

Q. I don't think you're neat. I think you're queer.
A. That's not a question.
Michael Bierut

My seven year old was "electrified" by this movie. There is something about it, despite its cornball moralizing, that is quite enticing, and Jessica has it right, it has to do with its intense visual nature, which is pretty great even without the 3-D glasses (I took them off for most of it). The film does seem like it was concocted by a child, but some of that is actually good, like the fact that it has none of those ironic jokes-for-the-parents that characterize a lot of animated movies: this movie truly does not seem to care if the parents enjoy it, or not. But the thing that my daughter was completely taken by in this film is the idea that the power of the hero resides in his dream book/journal. We had to run out and buy a blank book for her to record daydreams and nightdreams, and she's been at it for a week now.
Lorraine Wild

If the film seems like it was concocted by a child, it was (sort of). Robert's children helped him pen the film, work it through storyboards, and bring it to the big screen.

Jason, you're right: but it sort of goes without saying that parents are supposed to guide their childrens' imaginations, and if you're a film director you'd just sort of assume such guidance would take the form of, well, better writing and editing, maybe? That said, Lorraine's observation is a great one: the very idea that a dream journal would become valuable currency in a child's world is simply a mesmerizing concept, whatever your age, and deserves to be adopted by more of us. Especially designers.
Jessica Helfand

Jobs | July 25