It's tempting to cut Robert Rodriguez's The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl In 3-D a whole lot of slack. Like Rodriguez's last kids' film, 2003's Spy Kids 3-D, it's an extraordinarily sweet movie with one of the nice, unobjectionable messages that kids' films tend to have. It's also got an appealingly homemade, personal quality, and it was shot and distributed in a wonderfully anachronistic format beloved by cinephiles, junk-culture enthusiasts, and those merely tired of the limitations of boring old 2D. If that isn't enough, the film's story is credited to Rodriguez's young son, Marcel "Racer" Rodriguez, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Sadly, the film's creaky, sometimes painful dialogue makes it all too easy to believe that it was genuinely co-written by a small child. (Or, at the very least, George Lucas.) Rodriguez's wife even serves as producer. How can anyone object to a guy making nice movies with—and apparently for—his family?
Yet there's really no getting around the fact that for all its good intentions, the movie itself simply isn't very good. All of Spy Kids 3-D's abundant weaknesses are present in more concentrated forms, and the 3D gimmick has lost much of its novelty, especially since so many of the 3D sequences feel like halfhearted warm-ups for the inevitable video-game tie-in. In a scenario that owes much to the Spy Kids franchise, Sharkboy casts Cayden Boyd—whose performance suggests he has a bright future as Haley Joel Osment's stand-in—as a bullied, starry-eyed dreamer who leaves school and embarks on 3D adventures with the pint-sized superheroes of the title. Along the way, he learns the requisite life lessons about the importance of imagination and believing in himself.
At first, Sharkboy may look like a transparent Spy Kids knockoff, but there are some crucial differences. For example, Rodriguez's hit trilogy is about kid super-agents, while this film is about kid superheroes. Alas, it's doubtful audiences will be clamoring for two more Sharkboy adventures, since Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner) conveys all the warmth and likeability generally associated with cold-blooded underwater killers, while Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) comes off as whiny and uncertain. Sharkboy's unsubtle bid to get kids to put down their Game Boys, cell phones, laptops, and Blackberries and indulge in some daydreaming is certainly admirable, but this clunky, lifeless snoozer ultimately makes a pretty weak case for the power of imagination.