Robert Rodriguez goes back to the kids’ table with the sweet but chintzy We Can Be Heroes
Taylor Dooley in We Can Be Heroes
Multitasker, director / writer / producer / cameraman / editor Robert Rodriguez was working on an episode of The Mandalorian that aired on Disney + a few weeks before the release of We Can Be Heroes, his new Netflix movie. Both show Pedro Pascal, but it's the feature film, not the 30-minute TV episode, that could have been completed over a series of lunch breaks. Yes, after making one of his best and most ambitious films, Rodriguez is back in his green-screen garage producing children's films that feel hand-made, provided the hands in question are familiar with rudimentary CGI.
The busy, overlapping look of a later Rodriguez family adventure goes well with Netflix. We Can Be Heroes can revive even a long dormant non-franchise. It's not exactly a sequel to 2005's The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl, but these ex-superheroes all appear adult - and, in Sharkboy's case, masked to hide the fact that he's no longer of werewolf-hunk and martial arts enthusiasts Taylor is played Lautner. Sharkboy and Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley) also have their own overpowering daughter named Guppy (Vivien Lyra Blair), the smallest of a group of superhero kids who are thrown together when invading aliens lead their famous parents.
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One of these parents is Marcus Moreno (Pascal), a former "hero" (the find-replace version of slangy nicknames like "Super" or "Supe") and a single father who now holds a desk job at his daughter's request Missy (YaYa Gosselin) without power. Marcus is still being captured by the aliens, and so Missy ends up in a superhero day care center mixed with a diverse but calculated group of personalities like the New Mutants who were crossed with the Burger King Kids Club. The mini-heroes - including stretchy noodles (Lyon Daniels), super-strong Wheels (Andy Walken), the mighty singer A Capella (Lotus Blossom), and the multi-power wild card (Nathan Blair) - decide to take the heroine administrator Ms. Granada defy (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) to fight the alien threat.
There are some surprises from there, though the movie's biggest twists and turns also retrospectively undermine its dramatic tension. (This could also be a plus for the target group and not a source of deflation.) The best emphasizes character over the plot: Missy does not reveal a long dormant superpower of her own and is chosen to lead the group anyway. Much to the chagrin of the designated charismatic front man Wild Card. When a powerless child is at the center of the story (and their experience has self-doubt without wallowing in it), the superpowers can inform crazy antics rather than indoctrinate child viewers into superhero-like power fantasies.
For superhero filmmaking, however, it's better to watch one of those teenage power fantasies all over again. Aside from a curvy physical comedy, We Can Be Heroes seldom evokes the skill of Rodriguez's best action film. This was not always the case with his child-friendly work. The first three Spy Kids films convey an authentically childlike sensibility with a real demeanor and strange, funny jokes. Heroes can put together a pleasantly colorful crew of famous adults to play on the sidelines (Pascal is accompanied by Boyd Holbrook, Sung Kang, and Christian Slater), but there's no Antonio Banderas / Carla Gugino chemistry to liven up those little pieces. On the contrary: some of the actors, especially Priyanka Chopra Jonas, gesticulate as if they were reenacting an animator's model sheet. Sometimes that's fun - Rodriguez has a good gag on the adult poses who strike poses when they discover a camera is in place. As with many performances, the film often hits the same note over and over again.
It's hard to get mad at We Can Be Heroes, even if it feels like a seminar on peer leadership or offers several bad David Bowie covers to justify its title. Rodriguez's children's films are always good-natured and speak admirably directly to their target audience. But while he can generate countless environments from his studio in Austin, the camera work on these projects, limited and uninspired, indicates their origins as a single room. Adult viewers may become parents of the filmmaker: Robert, maybe it's time for you to go outside and play?
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