Director Robert Rodriguez is noted and often admired for the fiendish inventiveness of his narratives and visual presentations. In movies ranging from The Faculty, From Dusk to Dawn, the Desperado series, and Sin City to the zany and bizarre Spy Kids films, Rodriguez has proven himself one of the most creative filmmakers of our time.
What has been less noticed, probably because of the bizarre surfaces of his films, is that his movies are typically rather thoughtful, intellectually provocative, and indeed somewhat moral at their core.
The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D, Rodriguez’s latest release, is emblematic of both sides of the filmmaker’s work. Rodriguez directed the film in 3D, having written the screenplay based on ideas from his son, Racer, who was seven-years-old at the time.
Shark Boy and Lava Girl reflects the innocence and imaginativeness of childhood, and the anxieties as well. On the surface, it is as inventive and bizarre as any of Rodriguez’s other films; at times it reminded me of Tsui Hark’s amazing 1983 fantasy film, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain. That is a huge compliment.
There is rather more to the film than just crazy fun, however. The story follows the adventures of ten-year-old Max, a fairly ordinary boy who enjoys his dreams and dreads reality, for in the latter realm he is the target of school bullies led by the despicable Linus. Max also worries about his parents’ marital problems. He escapes into his dreams, and keeps a “dream book” in which he documents his reveries so that he can remember them.
Of the two main villains in the film, Linus is a typical child bully, and the other is a public-school teacher (though he is a villain only in the dream). A significant part of the story deals with the premise that the public school Max attends is trying to kill his dreams. In the dream world, Linus is called Minus, and he represents all that is evil, barren, and stifling. The school teacher is represented by Mr. Electricity, who tries to keep children from dreaming.
Significantly, in the main reality the bully Linus steals Max’s dream book, thereby threatening to steal Max’s dreams, just as the school is doing. The film emphasizes the notion that dreaming is important because making our dreams reality is what makes the world a better place. The dream planet is called Drool, a combination of words dream and school, and Max must find a way to make these two worlds coexist.
Among his imaginary playmates are Shark Boy (a human-shark mix who was raised by great white sharks) and Lava Girl (who can shoot fire and lava rocks). It turns out that these individuals are not dreams at all but are real, as are the villains. Shark Boy and Lava Girl turn out really to be composed of water and light, respectively.
This is significant because the first of these is a biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the second a biblical name for Jesus Christ. In addition, Lava Girl is, of course, made of rock, another name by which Jesus Christ is known. Also, fire is a traditional symbol of manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
The film is no simple allegory, however: both Shark Boy and Lava Girl, when they reside in Max’s dreams, have flaws. But once Max knows them for what they really are, they become real and are true superheroes. It is Max’s faith that allows them to work in the real world.
Subsequently, Shark Boy and Lava Girl save Max’s parents from literally spinning off into the void. Max’s father is an author, but he cannot make a living from his creations. His dream world brings no rewards because neither he nor Max’s mom seems to have sufficient faith to make his career work.
Finally, a girl named Marisa (a variation of the name Mary, of course) is revealed to be a great queen who is in fact the only one on earth who can wield the power of a potent crystal that can save the world. Marisa is the daughter of the schoolteacher, who is a good-hearted and well-meaning fellow, unlike his dream counterpart. In the dream world she is the Ice Princess, and as the film’s website aptly puts it, she “holds the key to defeating Mr. Electric and Minus.” Minus is shown in various guises suggesting both Count Dracula and Satan.
It is highly unlikely that most children will assimilate these deeper allusions and meanings, but they will surely understand the more general ideas of the film–that greatness lies in realizing our most hopeful dreams and that there is a war between good and evil often operating under the surface of seemingly ordinary events.
It is fascinating to see a film work so well on a symbolic level, and this kind of depth of meaning is not at all unusual in Rodriguez’s work. The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl is much less obviously thoughtful than, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there is much more than the 3-D zaniness than meets the eye.
–S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research and editor of The Reform Club.