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Nearly unwatchable, 3-D 'Adventures' falls flat

When this critic was a very young movie geek growing up in Brookline, he remembers going to Saturday matinees at the Coolidge Corner Theatre to see all the old gimmick films: 3-D movies, William Castle schlockers, B-level horror flicks during which some poor, underpaid usher had to stalk up and down the aisles dressed as the Creature From the Black Lagoon. In every case, I and my buzz-cut friends came away crestfallen. Once again we had been promised magic, and once again we had been sold snake oil.

''The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D" proudly upholds this tradition.

The latest project from Robert Rodriguez, creator of the ''Spy Kids" franchise when he's not sawing people's limbs off in ''Sin City," ''Adventures" sounds like a grand old time -- a hip fusion of Nickelodeon attitude, the wittier children's books, and retro kitsch culture. In fact, it's a nearly unwatchable combination of the worst elements of all three. One could forgive a budget this threadbare, performances this amateurish, a plot this tortuous if the 3-D effects passed the cool test. Sadly, watching ''Adventures" is an experience akin to seeing the world through dung-colored glasses.

It begins promisingly enough, with a dark, funny Tim Burton-esque prelude outlining the origins of Sharkboy (Taylor Lautner), a marine biologist's son who's taken in by sharks and who eventually grows fins and jagged teeth of his own. The 3-D effects click here because the shots are clean and spacious, but too quickly we're back in two-dimensional land, in the classroom of spacey young Max (Cayden Boyd), who has dreamed up Sharkboy and his superhero partner Lavagirl (Taylor Dooley).

Max is ordered to stick to reality by his teacher, Mr. Electricidad (comedian George Lopez) and bullied by nasty Linus (Jacob Davich), who swipes and defaces his dream journal. His parents (David Arquette and Kristin Davis) are on the verge of divorce, since Dad's a hapless dreamer, too. Then Sharkboy and Lavagirl drop into the classroom to whisk Max away to their home on Planet Drool, which is endangered by a black cloud of Reason, or Un-Dreaming, or something. Back on go the red and blue cardboard glasses as Max and his friends battle Mr. Electricity (Lopez again, his face CGI'ed onto a Reddy Kilowatt body) and try to cross the Sea of Confusion and the Stream of Consciousness on the Train of Thought. Their goal: the Dream Lair.

In other words, what we have here is a parboiled stew of influences, from ''The Phantom Tollbooth" to ''The Wizard of Oz" to such half-forgotten oddities as the 1953 Dr. Seuss film ''The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T." and the 1986 Jim Henson/David Bowie misfire ''Labyrinth" to every multi-level video game your kid has ever played. Not surprisingly, the plot comes from Rodriguez's 7-year-old son, Racer, who gets a story and screenwriting co-credit with dad. This is awfully sweet. It's also the cinematic equivalent of listening to someone else's child read his collected works. Look, my kids are geniuses too, but I don't let them write the reviews.

Even a forced follow-your-dream allegory is better than none, of course, but Rodriguez hasn't helped matters with the casting. Young Boyd is fine, but the dueling Taylors should be sent back to the minors; as Lavagirl, Dooley plants a fake junior-miss smile on her face that looks ready to crack to pieces by the end. Even so, they're more bearable than Lopez, who, remarkably, is able to overact using just his face.

It's the failure of the 3-D sequences that rankles this ex-matinee junkie most deeply. Rodriguez has chosen the ''anaglyphic" format that will allow ''Adventures" to get into the most theaters; with the red-and-blue glasses, you can show it anywhere, whereas the superior polarized process requires a special mirrored screen. The problem is that red-and-blue glasses filter out all hues except a muddy brown. On the evidence here, Planet Drool should have been called Satellite Crud.

There's one pleasant upshot: You emerge from the movie eager to embrace the lush, colorful, three-dimensional specificity of the real world. I somehow doubt that was the intent.

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