Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D and Madagascar

Last Saturday night we attended the Skyline Drive-In Theater, our closest drive-in, which is a 45-minute drive north.

The Skyline Drive-In is perhaps twenty-five, maybe thirty years old, and for most of the time during the 1980s (that I know of) it showed adult movies and had a terrible reputation as a seedy business. The porno reputation is long gone. In the nine years since returning to this area, I’ve know the Skyline to be a family establishment, showing first run Hollywood films. (Hollywood meaning a strict major studio release where the money shot is of a bus crashing through a building and into a fully loaded 747, which in turn slams into an attacking alien ship.)

The movies on deck for this Saturday evening were The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D and Madagascar. How easier it would have been to leave our youngest, who is three and half. I was still recovering from a vicious cold and my energy level was not what I needed in wrangling her and keeping her much older sisters out of each other’s hair. Given the subject matter of the movies my wife was happy to sit these out and to have the evening and night to herself. I hadn’t considered going until later the next week, and it was nearly six o’ clock, and not a finger had been lifted to get ready (and in our household there’s much to do before headin’ off to the outdoor theater). When my ten-year old popped the idea and it spread like wildfire, my thirst for the drive-in had to be quenched.

Unlike other June evenings around the country, the Pacific Northwest was experiencing a very cool wind out of the west. Jackets, even coats would be needed as the sun reached for the horizon. My girls, on my immediate word that we would in fact go to the drive-in, snapped into action. They cleaned and scrubbed out the car, stacked blankets and pillows for loading, and fished and cleaned out from the basement the big old red ice chest (Coleman, what else), and filled it with the usual bric-a-brac of drinks and snackables. With the box office opening at 8:00 pm sharp, we scurried out of the house at seven, swung by the local Safeway where my oldest raced in, bought a bag of ice and filled the chest. Then, we headed out north on I-5.


When we arrived at 7:50 pm, low and behold the longest line of cars prior to the box office opening were backed up from the box office all the way down to the highway, a rough distance of some 100 yards, give or take a first down. We were arriving at the second night of this double feature, which I attributed the anxious rush of families—mine included—clamoring to get in so early. So large was the crowd at the gate that the box office allowed people an early entrance, taking money and handing back tickets and 3-D glasses, Lava Girl Glasses for the ladies and Shark Boy glasses for the guys. Both gender frames came wrapped in clear plastic and I ordered my oldest daughter to stow them in the glove box until the movie started. You know exactly what would happen to those spectacles if I allowed my girls run around with them before the movie started. I’d have to beg the management for replacements.

I was a little apprehensive about having so many cars ahead of me. Perchance I might have to settle for a spot other than the usual, which is the front row, right in the middle. Oddly enough, the entire front row was empty, and the next two sparsely occupied. Higher up, closer to the concession building, the rows were slogged with vehicles. On closer scrutiny these turned out to be trucks and SUVs. Because the line of sight for this screen is so low, larger vehicles the back half of the speaker poles, marked in yellow. All of this confirmed what I suspected; most people, nowadays drive trucks and SUVs, and certainly favor these when going to the drive-in.


Once I parked and checked the speaker, we unpacked (Skyline has AM radio sound on the 540 as well, which piped in 97.7 The Eagle, but you gotta have a speaker—am I right?). My oldest made base camp on the ground in front of the car, and my middle child set up roost on the roof. My youngest and I took the front seat. Just try and keep the Roadrunner in a cage for ninety minutes before the movie. Forget it. Didn’t even try. We went outside, and boy, was that brisk wind chilly, gusting at times with a sting across my face. But you know little kids; what do they care? They’ll play through anything: wind, ice, fire. The larger ones, fed on processed foods and entertained on Nintendo, tend to be softer around the edges, mentally and physically. I gave my oldest quarters to play the games in the snack bar, which they quickly burned through in a half hour. Remember Spyhunter? That old school upright was there, along with other ancient simulators of road and rage: Grand Prix and Wolf Commando. Among these were assortments of gangland kickboxing dramas, blowback from the 1980s America’s sad fascination with Jean-Claude Van Damme. We’ve never owned a Nintendo-PlayStation scheme in our house so my daughters took to these like a starving man feeds a Ritz Cracker. Anyone with Halo II at home would undoubtedly cry out in disbelief.

While my daughters drained their quarter supply, I wrangled the littlest sprout. The grass field in front of the screen is large enough to run two or three small touch football games, and the three year-old made certain she intersected every scrimmage, and assortments of “tag” and “ball”. When she grew bored of this, sprinting from pole to pole, lifting up each speaker and twisting the volume knobs up and down amused her. With the cold wind how grateful I was to see the sky turn darker, when I could finally scoop her up and say, “It’s time to go and sit in the car and wait for the movie.”


The movie, though, didn’t start on time. Five minutes before, with kids still playing in the faint light of the field, a white bronco suddenly snapped a hard right and zoomed in front of our row at a forty mile an hour sprint, between the kids in front of the screen and the patrons mingling in front of their cars, before snapping another hard right, and zooming at high speeds up the side lane towards the rear of the drive-in. Insane? Dangerous? These words are mere understatements. Patrons ran to the concession building to report it, and to find the jerk-wad pilot of the idiot mobile and allow their anger to walk on the darkside. If he was caught and told to leave by the management, or if the sheriff deputies made a house call, I do not know. (I’m certain he left.)

As to why he drove his SUV like a wife-beater, I have a theory. He arrived late, minutes before nine-thirty, and because he could only park in the yellow pole section, the only yellow poles open to him were in the very rear, behind the concession building. How unfair, he fumed, speeding down towards the front, to see so many empty spots reserved for station wagons, sedans and compacts—and he was forced to park in the back of the drive-in. For a man of his stature, a hard working man, this was an affront to his constitutional dignities, like what happened to that Rosa Parks lady! In his moment of intense rage he realized that he was a freedom fighter, and by God, he was going to blaze a trail of protest…at forty miles an hour just a few feet from small children playing.

Angry white males. You can’t throw a stick in any direction without hitting one.


Somewhere between the first and second preview—Herbie: Fully Loaded and Batman Begins, the brisk wind chill forced my remaining children inside. The grade on the rows wasn’t high enough for someone in the back seat to catch the top half of the screen, so, after some strategic jockeying of body types in the right position, the four of us sat in the front seat comfortably with the three year old on my lap. I placed the speaker on the steering wheel in front of me and kept the radio off, which was weak with a hiss. The speaker was much louder and more full. (Go speakers!) Cardboard glasses were strapped on top of their heads, and the little one was entertained by the red and blue lenses.

This was not my first 3-D movie. Back in 1983 our family attended Treasure of the Four Crowns and those particular cardboard glasses were not blue-red lenses but white, with one lens having horizontal lines and the other vertical. I’m not familiar with the technique nor am I interested in going online, researching it, and coming back with all the particulars to make myself a sound like a freaking genius. All I know is that the movie was from Italy, badly dubbed in English, and reached the creative zenith of America’s classic adventure films, like Stroker Ace or Megaforce. But…with those glasses I clearly saw the movie. Had I only the same fortune with “Shark Boy” et al, the latest kid’s adventure from Robert Rodriguez, of Spy Kids fame. What is essentially a fantastic children’s adventure, becomes befuddled courtesy of the red and blue lens effect. Sure, some of the images stand out, much like pictures in your old View Master, but the action becomes visually impaired filtered through those dark red and light blue lenses. This forced my kids—all of them—to remove their glasses just to see what the heck was happening.

But…we’re at the drive-in. Who cares! Had I plunked down the matinee or evening ticket price to sit in a hard top I would have been upset. This aside, the story is cute, and from what I understand it was written by Racer Rodriquez, the director’s son, or at the very least based on his ideas. The swirling dervish plot does have that little kid grab-bag feel wildly. (I was a kid once; I remember what my stories were like). But this concoction of a young boy’s hyperactive imagination, who suffers at the hands of a bully, shoots rapidly down a fast track, shifting from reality into the dream world he created inside a journal. To make a long story short—the world is in jeopardy, on the brink of destruction. Only this young boy can venture into his dream world, aided by his creations Shark Boy and Lava Girl, fight the villains (who resemble villains from the real world) and end the annihilation threatening us all.

Sadly, we the audience must experience the most visually inventive sections of this movie through the most annoying technology once reserved for children’s magazine posters and 1950s monster movies. Let’s hope Shark Boy and Lava Girl’s adventures have a better chance for appreciation on DVD.


Madagascar was the second feature, and for a Saturday night I was shocked by how many people pack up and drove for the exit. This was the movie I really came to see, and I figured most had given the cast of Ben Stiller and Chris Rock, but a slow trickle continued well into the first five-ten minutes of the second feature.

Intermissions at the Skyline were once punctuated by old school concession films—“Mountain Snack Bar” and “Martian Snack Bar.” Not anymore. A dead screen and speakers stared us back. With the security lamp shining from the top of the concession building over the auditorium is gave the quiet a dusty late night sense of finality. Meanwhile, my two oldest daughters joined the cross-legged throng of women waiting pensively on the only three available toilets. The ten year-old managed to get near the front of the line but had to wait five minutes. My oldest daughter said, “Forget this,” and used the men’s room. In and out.

Late into the intermission, and it did seem a little long, there was a disturbance in the force. Folks around us in the front three rows suddenly honked their horns and flashed their lights on the screen.

“Daddy,” my ten-year old said. “Why are they honking?”
“It’s a rudimentary language between the patrons of a drive-in and the man in the projection booth. Been around for ages.”
“What are the people in the cars saying?”
“Well…right now, they’re telling the man running the projector that he should begin the movie, post-haste.”
“They’re telling him get his butt moving and start the darn show.”

And so, the rudimentary communication of lights and sounds continued from the darkside of the moon to the mothership, even throughout the management’s standard announcement that the snack bar would close ten minutes after the movie started. Once the management sternly asked the folks to please stop honking and flashing their lights, the patrons ceased their infernal tooting.

Then the show began with a preview, which was for Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Sounds interesting. I can’t wait for it to come to the drive-in.


My ten-year old had already seen the movie the week prior with her grandparents and had assured us that we would find it funny. My three-year old perked up at the sight of computer animation like Shrek and The Incredibles, which she calls Superman. (“Wanna see Superman…”) With Ben Stiller and Chris Rock manning the front lines of the comedic voice talents in this movie I felt relaxed and open-minded to the story. If memory serves me, the action begin in the Central Park Zoo, and centers around an attention-craved lion (Stiller), a hypochondriacal giraffe (David Schwimmer), a hippo, whose personality-type escapes me at the moment (Jada Pinkett-Smith), and a Zebra who longs for the outside world (Chris Rock). These creatures are not simply lovable but they are uniquely designed to cause a wry grin to creep across your face when they appear on screen. Most fun, however, are the military organized penguins, who in The Great Escape mode, are digging tunnels out into the city proper. When the Zebra (I don’t remember the character’s names and I’m not going to look them up) happens upon their scheme, he joins them, and soon finds himself wandering the downtown Manhattan late at night. The problem is that the others, the lion, giraffe, and hippo enjoy the effortless free food by their handlers and the attention of the zoo patrons, and fear this escape will ruin everything. To make a long story short—they all wind up in Madagascar. For the geographically challenged, it is a very, very, very large island on the south eastern coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. Here, the remaining and critical portion of the story unfolds—how these domestically lived creatures, particularly the carnivorous lion, adjusts to being in the wild. Rest assured, there is a tribe of monkeys who take in our friends, one of whom is voiced by Cedric the Entertainer.

This animated movie, by DreamWorks, is no Shrek. But if you were one of the unfortunate souls to have witnessed Shark Tales this should rinse the disappointment out of your mouth. It’s a cute film. That’s all. And my three year old stayed wide awake through it, and let fly with quite a few laughs and giggles, and she only laughed once during Shark Tales. Unfortunately, quite a few people were leaving during the movie, revving their engines and lashing us with their headlights (they have no regard for drive-in protocol). The windows frequently fogged up and I’d have to fire up the engines and douse the windshield with hot air from the defroster.


As the cars lined out, I buckled the smallest one into her car seat, packed several pillows around her to lean on as she dozed off, while the older girls ran off for one more trip to the bathroom. I circled the car for shoes, food, trash—and once I was certain we were not about to leave anything behind, I hung the speaker up, fired up the car (and the heater) and waited for the girls to get back. Just to show you the dense population at the drive-in when the evening started, five minutes passed before I could sneak into the massive exodus leaving the theater after the end of Madagascar.

Brightly glowing tail lights flowed out of the drive-in, a bright flowing ribbon, down the road and spilling into the highway, where we headed back down south some forty miles.