These days, superhero movies are all over the media landscape, most of them very serious but there was a time when superhero and adventure movies for kids were very popular, particularly those which featured youngsters using gadgets or their new powers to rescue either their parents or the world. These were often funny as well as brandishing a bit of coming-of-age and family friendly. Among the classics of this genre is 2005’s “Sky High” and 2006’s “Zoom.”
Then there is a pocket of work that are essentials for kids growing up in the very early aughts: “Spy Kids” (2001), Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams” (2002), “Sky Kids 3-D: Game Over” (2003) and “Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World” (2011). But perhaps the cult favorite and most emblematic of these efforts was 2005’s “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D.”
What do these last five kids’ movies have in common? They are all the creations and were directed by Robert Rodriguez, yes, the same Robert Rodrguez known for his violent modern grindhouse films such as, well, “Desperado,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Planet Terror,” and “Machete.”
But Rodriguez has always had a very soft spot for these kid’s adventure films. “I’m from a family of 10 kids, five kids in my own,” he tells reporters over Zoom. “Family’s always been super important to me. Even though I have the duality of being Family Guy and the guy making movies like ‘Machete’ and ‘Sin City.’ I prefer that which I’ve invested in most of my time and has been a father, a sibling and you know being a family man.”
“Sharkboy,” which featured a boy who had superheroes emerging from his dreams (the aforementioned Sharkboy and Lavagirl) is a bright candy-store example of this. It’s also an example of how much Rodriguez likes working with his kids. The original film evolved when Rodriguez had just finished another film and was very tired. He was playing with his boys in the pool and his 7-year-old son Racer Max kept pretending to be a shark chasing the others saying, “I’m shark boy, I’m shark boy.” His son said Rodriguez should write a movie called “Shark Boy,” Rodriguez told reporters over Zoom. They came out with a girl character who would be made of lava. “Go, go,” he said. “You go write the rest. So, he started writing it out and then we turned it into a movie, after all. So yeah, that totally came from his brain, but a kid being half-boy half-shark. That’s what kids love: empowerment. They love to be empowered and I wouldn’t have thought of that idea because as adults were already empowered we can get in the car we can drive to the store where kids need their parents to do everything. So, for them to have that empowerment. They eat that up. And that’s why, families, parents could never understand why kids love that movie so much, it’s because it came from another kid’s mind, and it spoke to the need for empowerment at that age.”
Now, Netflix has recruited Rodriguez to make a kind of sequel 15 years after the original: “We Can Be Heroes.”
“When Netflix came to me and said we love your family films like ‘Spy Kids’ and ‘Shark Boy,’ they do really well in our service,” he said. “Kids watch them over and over again. No one does these live action kids movies. I was like wow, really? I love making those movies.”
In “Heroes” (yes, it’s named after a line from a David Bowie song), Marcus Moreno (Pedro Pascal) now leads the world’s superheroes—the Heroics— against an alien invasion. To keep them safe, the heroes’ children are hidden away in an underground fortress. But when the invaders succeed in capturing their parents, it’s up to Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin) who has no powers to lead her fellow second-generation heroes in escaping the headquarters (commanded by Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and rescue their parents. The kids’ powers range from the impressive (Vivien Lyra Blair’s Guppy, the daughter of Sharkboy and Lavagirl) can control water as well as go on a super strong shark frenzy) to the somewhat ridiculous (Andrew Diaz’s Facemaker, who can, well, stretch and make faces but also take on the appearance of others). Somehow, Missy gets the super kids to overcome their insecurities and their rivalries to work together but will it be enough to find their parents—especially when there is something waiting for them they have way of anticipating. It’s really lighthearted, all about family.
This is the big break for the 11-year-old Gosselin, who you might remember from “The First Purge.” She plays Missy and really thought about the role “You know, being a leader comes with quite a bit of responsibility and a lot of confidence and I think that, you know, I’m, I’m not the most confident person,” she said. “And so I think what was probably the toughest about playing this character was really having to step into this role of leadership that I wasn’t used to and really tried to become the leader of not only the heroics but the leader of all the cast in real life and that was definitely a difficult task but I think that I achieved it.”
While the original Sharkboy, Taylor Lautner, was unable to reprise the role (Rodriguez said the role was too small and no lines, so it was played by masked stunt coordinator J.J. Dashnow), the original Lavagirl Taylor Dooley actually plays the grown-up Lavagirl. “She was so excited,” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘You don’t have to dye your hair. You can use a wig,’ and she’s like, ‘Nope I’m dyeing my hair. I’ve been dying to go back to that color since I was a kid. That’s me, I’m Lavagirl.’ She texts me, and it comes up as Lavagirl. Yeah, you’re Lavagirl. So, she was super into it, she has little kids that when they saw her the pink hair they scream, ‘We’re so excited that couldn’t believe, see her mom’s like legit superhero again.’”
Gosselin is happy to be in this sequel. “And I loved the movie and I also love that it’s a movie that the entire family can watch you know and kids love that movie and my sisters loved that movie and I love that movie. And I think that watching it was definitely cool because then I got to meet Taylor Dooley andit was like, ‘Whoa you’re here but you’re not on the screen.’ And so that was that was really cool. ‘SharkBoy and Lavagirl’ is probably now in my top 10 of my favorite kids’ movies
The 8-year-old Blake would be instantly familiar as the girl from “Bird Box,” and her Guppy steals every scene she’s in. Yeah, I am ready, I mean I’ve done it before with ‘Bird Box,’” she tells Super. “I’m just super excited to have a new movie coming out, I remember that was very exciting for birdbox, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
Both of them are also serious about a career in acting despite their young ages. “To be completely honest, I don’t really remember my life before acting,” Gosselin says. “I’ve been acting forever. And I’ve always known that acting is my passion because it’s when you love something so much you can’t actually explain why you love it so much because you just have so much joy when you do it and I have so much. I just love getting to step into somebody’s shoes for a certain amount of time and be somebody else and then get to see it on screen, it just brings me so much joy.” Blair says, “I agree completely with YaYa, and I think that being a natural is just so amazing, like your career is to play pretend, and that’s just such an amazing thing, and I really love being in actress, and I have for what half of my life now.”
In making movies for kids, Rodriguez had never worked with a cast of kids this big. “in in the other movies I did, sometimes it’d be as many as four kids at a time, not 11, but I’m from a family of 10 so that just gave me flashbacks to growing up, you know, being surrounded by all my siblings,” he says. “You find a connection with each one. And then you tap into that like say the little girl was so little (Blake). She was 6 just turned 7 and she was younger than the other ones by, you know only four years but that’s like 20 years and kid years. She was just always felt a little left out so I would play Go Fish whether we play avocado smash this game that she liked card game because I just missed that age, my girl, my daughter’s past that age already so I got to hold on to that age for a little bit longer.”
The question remains, how did the dream characters in “Sharkboy” now be in a world full of superheroes in “Heroes.” “This movie isn’t really a sequel. Their world is a dream world that skipped this step,” he told Super. “I made this move, first, and then I borrowed those characters the way, you know, Marvel borrowed Spider-Man from Sony and put it in Avengers film I borrowed them and they put them in the real world I just made them real-world characters like maybe at some point they became real because in that movie it does say some dreams are so powerful they become real. I think because, you know, kids dreamed about those characters for so long, they became real and now their parents and now they have a little kid that has the combination of those powers. So that’s how it. That’s how I, you know, make the logic work.”
And family really does literally empower this production. Rodriguez directed, wrote, produced and is the cinematographer. His son Racer (yes, the same guy who came up with Sharkboy) is a producer. Son Rebel scored the film’s music.
“Heroes” signals a return to Rodriguez’s brand of family-friendly adventure films, but with a sleeker, more contemporary feel but still with a message of empowerment—that the kids will be better than their parents someday. As this is the second movie featuring the Sharkboy and Lavagirl characters, will there be a sequel to “Heroes” on Netflix? And is to possible to have a fifth “Spy Kids” movie?
“Oh, I can’t say anything right now but I would love to I mean I love all those creations,” Rodiguez say with a laugh. “Their originals you know when you make original IP (intellectual property) like that you can always bring them back. You know 20 years later, it’s been 20 years since like is, that’d be really fun to reboot that now with my kids now that I’m working with my kids, so much. They said they know, they told me look we had such a great childhood we want to give that back to other kids, we’d love to do more family stuff they all want to work on family stuff too. So that to me that’s not even work that’s play, so yeah, I would love to. So, let’s see how this movie does and if it does really well then maybe we can read, you know, reboot some of the other ones.”
“We Can Be Heroes” is now streaming on Netflix.