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A rainbow rock falls from the sky. For whatever reason, it has the power to grant any wish, no matter how poorly phrased. And of course, every single person in the ominously named town of Black Falls either phrases their wishes poorly, or simply abuses the stone's power.

If it sounds like the plot of Shorts is something that only a kid could dream up, well, you haven't watched much of writer/director/editor/cinematographer/craft services cook Robert Rodriguez' work. Actually, you could have; he divides quite neatly and firmly into two categories - movies fit only for twisted adults, and movies that appeal to kids with wild imaginations.

Shorts would be the latter, and to be quite honest, it's not going to work particularly well for anyone over the age of 12. But if you're under 12, this is like Citizen Kane.

It also plays to Rodriguez' weakness - narrative cohesion - and turns it into a strength. Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) serves as narrator, and like many elementary school children, he's still learning what might be important to a story and what might not be. Hence the title Shorts; Toe figures that if he can tell the story as a series of film shorts, it will allow him to go back and pick up a story that might turn out to be important but that he'd forgotten.

Still with it? Good. Because it's actually a clever idea, sort of doing Pulp Fiction by way of Mark and Janet. Each short also comes with a built-in little moral, and only a few times does Rodriguez spell that moral out, then bullet point and highlight key phrases. Occasionally he lets his fledgling viewers make up their own mind what it's about.

Even with the morals, the stories are filled with inventiveness and quirky character bits that will hold kids' attentions, and an impressive cast of character actors to distract parents. The germophobic Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) battles a booger monster, while the whole town spends its time distracted by the Black Box, an all-purpose device created by Mr. Black (James Spader). And that's before the wishing rock grants near omniscience to a baby, voiced by Rodriguez' ex-wife and co-producer Elizabeth Avellan.

Subtly - and it's hard to believe that I can use that adverb here -- Shorts continues a theme in Rodriguez' work for children about the importance of family, and how easily technology can get in the way of that. Though clunky looking, the Black Box (not to be confused with the Purple Pyramid or the Silver Cylinder) can become almost anything you need, whether it be a PDA, an HDTV or a food processor. Few people in Black Falls have noticed that they spend more time with it than each other.

To give Rodriguez credit, that's one of the ideas that isn't beaten on too much; it's a fact of life for these people, and they're all struggling to figure out why they're all so lonely. It also may stand as a personal statement for Rodriguez - surrounding himself with technology and being a filmmaker is cool and all, but it has cost him a lot in his family life.

Kids won't pick up on that. Instead, they'll love the clever use of CG, including miniature aliens and happily hungry alligators flying through the air. They might actually accidentally digest some pro-social messages, and the format of the movie might make them explore some post-modern storytelling …okay, that might be a stretch.

More than anything, Robert Rodriguez wishes for imagination to run free. Finally, though, he's figured out that you can give it a long lead, but still keep it on a leash. Shorts has him back in territory mined by the first Spy Kids, which was a good family film. This one isn't quite for the whole family, but it's at least a step in the right direction.

Derek McCaw

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