Dream Child

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

The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3D
Out of the minds of babes: Little Racer Max Rodriguez dreams big.
Out of the minds of babes: Little Racer Max Rodriguez dreams big.
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.

That previous 3-D experiment 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 dream world called Planet Drool, inspired as much by 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; he truly believes that Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley), his invented superheroes, are real.

Max's 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 because its dreams are being corrupted by an evil force who closely resembles the school bully (Jacob Davich) and a Megaman-like cyborg named Mr. Electric (Lopez's face on a CG body).

Fittingly, 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 lighthearted fantasy.

As for the 3-D, it's still blue and red. Fitting theaters nationwide with screens to match the standards for gray polarized lenses is still too costly and will probably have to wait for James Cameron's next film. But here's a nifty touch for kids: Two styles of glasses are available -- lava glasses for girls, shark glasses for boys.

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