A rainbow-colored wishing rock creates comic chaos in a film from Robert Rodriguez about bullies, family communication and being very, very careful what you wish for. It is also about an army of crocodiles, a telepathic super-genius baby, and a pig-tailed villain named after a font.
Rodriguez is a one-man studio who brings a stylish, kinetic energy to two kinds of movies, the ultra-violent (“Desperado,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”) and the family-friendly (the “Spy Kids” series). He is writer, director, cameraman, editor, co-composer of the score and in this case also father of four members of the supporting cast.
He understands that kids would be as likely to wish for getting their braces off as for money or superpowers. He knows how to get them actively involved in figuring out what is happening. He can tell that they will find a booger monster wildly funny. And he knows that what kids and parents wish for most is to be close to friends and family.
The title refers to the way the story is presented — brief intersecting stories going back and forth in time, each filling in additional details of the others. It is set in a community that literally exists in the towering shadow of Black, Inc., a huge corporation headed by Mr. Black (James Spader). He wants to create the ultimate technology, the Black Box, with innumerable functions that include a phone, vacuum cleaner, toaster, dog groomer, and baby monitor. Black’s harried employees include Mr. and Mrs. Thompson (Leslie Mann and John Cryer), who are assigned to lead competing teams and get so caught up in the pressure to succeed that they communicate primarily by texting, even when they are standing next to each other.
That is why they do not notice that their son, Toe (Jimmy Bennett), has no friends and is thrown in the trash every morning by a group of bullies at school led by Mr. Black’s children Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica (newcomer Jolie Vanier in Wednesday Addams mode). They throw a rock at Toe that turns out to have magical powers. But Toe and the other people who come in possession of the rock are no better at holding onto it than they are at stating their wishes with the requisite precision. Like all fairy tale wish-granters, the rainbow rock is very good at finding loopholes.
Toe presents each character’s experiences with the wishing rock, going back and forth in time and letting us put the pieces together. Toe’s neighbor Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) and his brothers make a number of wishes that do not turn out the way they had hoped, including a wish for “telephonesis” instead of “telekinesis” and wishing for wisdom without being more specific about who should become wise. And then there is another neighbor, Toe’s former friend Nose (Jake Short). He is confined to home with his germaphobic mad scientist of a father (William H. Macy), who spends every minute he isn’t wiping everything down with antiseptic working on contraptions to create a bacteria-free environment. When Toe’s sister (Kat Dennings) unknowingly carries the rainbow rock to her job as Nose’s tutor, Nose uses it to make an unselfish wish – but that does not keep the consequences from being equally disastrous. When Toe’s parents wish they could be closer, the result is more literal than they had in mind.
And then Helvetica and her father get the rock, and things really get out of hand.
After the disappointment of “Spy Kids 3D” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” it is good to see Rodriguez moving toward what made the first “Spy Kids” one of the best family films of the last decade. This film is not as imaginative or heart-warming as that one, but it is refreshingly un-glamorous and it has a warmth and sense of fun that makes it just the end-of-summer treat a family might wish for.
Parents should know that this film has comic peril and violence, some mildly scary monsters (and a silly one), some family stress, a “booger monster,” and some schoolyard language (“sucks,” “screwed up”).
Family discussion: If you had the rock, what would you wish? Did Toe say the right thing to Helvetica? How can families improve their communication?
If you like this, try: “Spy Kids” and “How to Eat Fried Worms”