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Two kids dressed as superheroes. Photo: Dimension Films

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Sharkboy and Lavagirl gained cult status thanks to kids who got it

Fans of the objectively weird kids movie explain why it has a place in their hearts

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Five years before Taylor Lautner ranked second on Glamour’s “The 50 Sexiest Men of 2010,” he donned a shark suit with molded abs to belt out a song about dreams. In 3D.

This was the magic of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, a kids movie on which filmmaker Robert Rodriguez served not just as director, but producer, co-screenwriter, visual effects supervisor, director of photography, editor, camera operator, composer, and musical performer. Inspired by a story written by Rodriguez’s son, the film follows a boy named Max whose fantastic creations written in his dream journal come to life. With its bright, over-the-top visuals and shamelessly indulgent fantasy story, Sharkboy and Lavagirl is a movie many have seen and still don’t believe.

When Netflix asked Rodriguez to make a new movie for the streaming service — after seeing the success of not just Sharkboy and Lavagirl on the platform, but Rodriguez’s other kid-tailored movies, the Spy Kids trilogy — he didn’t intend to make it a sequel. But while designing the heroes for a new adventure movie, he kept coming back to the idea of shark powers.

“We cracked the code 15 years ago,” Rodriguez joked in an interview with Polygon.

At that point, he figured why not?, and integrated a grown-up Sharkboy and Lavagirl, along with their superpowered kid, into his plans. The result was We Can Be Heroes, due out on Dec. 25. Rodriguez said neither he nor Netflix realized just how big the fanbase for the movie was until the first images and trailers came out and people cheered in absolute delight on social media.

There are surely dozens, if not hundreds, of kids movies that hit theaters then immediately settled into a life on a dusty shelf of VHS tapes (or perhaps more accurately in this day and age, the corner of some obscure streaming service). What was it about Sharkboy and Lavagirl that makes so many remember it years later? I turned to the internet in hopes of finding late-millennials/early-Gen-Z cuspers of the internet who might have the answers. Struck with doubt for a moment, I wondered if anyone would even weigh in; but within an hour of searching, I got so many DMs I had to close my inbox, lest I be crushed by the weight of Sharkboy and Lavagirl fervor.

What makes Sharkboy and Lavagirl so iconic to a certain sect of late-teens and twenty-somethings? Here’s what they told me.

lavagirl, sharkboy, and max in a bleak landscape Image: Dimension Films

Is Sharkboy and Lavagirl just so bad that it’s good?

With a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, Sharkboy and Lavagirl earned anything but critical acclaim. Reviews of the time pointed to the gimmicky 3D effects and amateurish storyline. “It’s terrible 3-D,” said Richard Roeper of Roeper and Ebert, “I think the story is terrible as well.” Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post noted that the “movie fails on nearly every level.” Melinda Ennis of Atlanta Journal-Constitution declared it “a half-baked world no kid would want to visit.”

Nora, who watched the movie when she was seven, says that she now appreciates Sharkboy and Lavagirl for the nostalgia value and the memes that have come from the overly dramatic scenes and kooky characters. But she admits, “Even as a kid, it didn’t really make sense, and I thought it looked ugly.” Still: Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner in a shark-themed muscle suit.

“I thought there was a lot of wasted potential,” TechRadar editor Henry St Leger, 26, recalls of his initial reaction. At the time, when compared to the more polished Spy Kids trilogy, he found Rodriguez’s bubbly follow up slightly lacking, citing a moment where Max has to go to sleep in order to advance the plot as an example of its weird pacing. Nowadays, he harbors warmer feelings towards Sharkboy and Lavagirl — it’s no Spy Kids 3: Game Over, but it went big with its imagination.

The movie’s Letterboxd reviews are perhaps the greatest testament to it’s strange, divided legacy. There are many bad reviews that just outright say “it fucking sucks,” but plenty of users take a restrained sort of criticism, saying, yeah, it’s a bad movie, but wasn’t it a delight?

“This is almost an impossible movie to rate but I feel like I have to give it something. I haven’t seen this in about ten years, but it’s a film I grew up with. It’s certainly a bad movie, but one I can’t give a half star to,” writes one user. “This movie was way ahead of its time,” writes another, who still only gives it one star.

But there are also tons of passionate, positive reviews on Letterboxd.“Exemplary. Paradigmatic. Quintessential. Iconic” begins one, with another calling it “Revolutionary.” Some genuinely praise the movie, especially as an important part of childhood, while others take a bit of a hyperbolic tongue-in-cheek approach (“Tarantino wishes he had the balls,” for instance). There is also someone who wrote DREAM DREAM DREAM DREAM over and over (they rated it two stars). The reviews run the gamut but what they all share is passion and the fact that no one who’s seen this movie forgets it.

The extreme visuals?

There are kid-friendly movies with actually polished production value — Disney Plus’ Secret Society of Second Born Royals is a recent example — but Rodriguez went in the opposite direction with Sharkboy and Lavagirl. Garish colors and bold design choices bring everything from a world made of ice cream to Taylor Lautner’s shark abs to George Lopez’s face suspended on a spherical electrical robot thingamabob with lightning arms to life. Robert Rodriguez rendered the unreality of an animated film in live-action.

george lopez as mr. electric Image: Dimension Films

“[Bright visuals] are how I always picked movies as a kid,” says Lily, 20, who points to the same year’s Herbie Fully Loaded as an example of a movie lacking color palette. “I remember seeing [Sharkboy and Lavagirl] at a young age and always feeling a bit sad there weren’t more movies that were willing to be as weird and what and visually interesting as it,” says Kajel, another Twitter fan. In his mind, what Rodriguez was chasing back in 2005 is right up there with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Into the Spider-Verse in terms of distinct visual flair.

Since Sharkboy and Lavagirl was a heavily home-brewed adventure movie, with Rodriguez using whatever technology was at his disposal to pull off the mind-bending visuals, many of the effects from the film didn’t age well. Many of those I spoke to would argue they looked cheap and gimmicky even at the time. But revisiting the movie in 2020 doesn’t damper the experience.

“‘I think it especially stuck with me from a visual aspect […] the overall look is so fun and striking,” Mack, 19, explains. “Upon rewatching it this year I was still mesmerized by [Lavagirl]s appearance just like I was as a child.”

taylor dooley glowing as lavagirl Image: Dimension Films

Sharkboy and Lavagirl lacks the dissonance of CG that reached for realism at the time only to look worse as technology evolved. The playful nature of the movie, combined with the fact that the effects didn’t look “good” even in 2005, means the movie’s wacky style could never go out of date. Few movies have embraced the visual appeal of a children’s coloring book, and in the grander sense, the untamed imagination of playtime.

“All of the bad CGI scenes where they are in this dream landscape spoke to me deeply for some reason and to this day I still like that early ‘00s cheap effects aesthetic,” says 21-year-old Twitter user Johan Colli. “But mostly I loved that it’s literally about your dreams coming true and blurring the line between what is real and what isn’t.”

The larger-than-life characters?

A lot of people I spoke to pointed to Taylor Lautner’s Sharkboy (and especially the very forceful dream song he sings) as one of the standout features, but he wasn’t the only treasured character. The fact that the movie puts the kids front and center — they are the ones saving the day — really made an impact on young audiences.

“Getting to watch kids work together, not grown ups, was what really sold this movie for me and it’s still the reason I love it today,” says Shaye Wyllie, an editor at Popcorn and Tequila who first watched the movie when she was 13.

Watching the movie as a kid, 23 year-old pop culture writer Matt loved how strong both the superpowered leads were. It was Lavagirl, he recalls, who made a particular impact on him.

“It felt really great to see kids being powerful and especially girls,” he tells me. “There were never many girl heroes in media and to me that felt special; all of my friends were girls and I often identified more with girls than boys.”

At the core of the story is Max (Cayden Boyd), the young boy who created Sharkboy and Lavagirl in his dream journal in response to his own struggles with his parents’ rocky marriage. He’s the heart of the movie, even if he doesn’t have fantastical superpowers. The other side characters all feel like hyperbolic kid-movie tropes — the school bully, the mean teacher — which adds to the already surreal world. Growing up with the movie means eventually realizing that well-known actors like George Lopez, Kristin Davis, and David Arquette committed fully to these roles. Millicent Thomas, a writer who’s hosted screenings of Spy Kids, says the adult performances in kids movies can make or break them.

“You’ve got to be IN it, you know?” she says. “You can’t laugh at it, it has to be laughed with.”

david arquette in a cookie costume Image: Dimension Films

The unabashedly kid-centric storyline?

Robert Rodriguez unapologetic mission with Sharkboy and Lavagirl was to entertain his kids. The story was written by his son. His daughter helped and wrote the song. Together they made a home movie with a feature film budget. This was detectable to kids who dreamed of seeing their own pretend games one day brought to life.

“There was something about the overall theme of dreams that really resonated with me as a kid, and it still gives me this feeling I almost can’t describe,” Mack says. “It just almost makes me think things like magic and those crazy environments on other planets really might exist — it really makes me feel like a kid again.”

Thomas considered Sharkboy and Lavagirl to be “sheer cinematic perfection” when she first saw it as a kid. And now? “Honestly, my reaction hasn’t changed one bit,” she says. “I can analyze, appreciate, and notice more things as a film student and writer, but it still gives me the same feeling it did when I was a kid and I adore every second.”

lavagirl and sharkboy about to square off against a foe Image: Dimension Films

She points to the idea that kids can do anything in the movie, that their stories were elevated to the center. They were action heroes, but kid-sized with kid interests and kid wants and dreams.

Sharkboy and Lavagirl made us feel like our stories and ideas were important and could help us in life,” says Thomas. “What kid didn’t keep a dream journal and try and make their own characters after they saw this movie?”

For some who grew up with it, reaching adulthood means a chance to share the film with their kids.

“Even though I think it’s super lame now and I can tell it wasn’t that great of a movie, I still wouldn’t mind sitting down and watching it again with my 8-year-old,” says Wylie.

Why has the unlikely, critically maligned Sharkboy and Lavagirl endured? By all accounts, it quietly became known as a joyful celebration of the power of imagination that indulges childhood dreams. The feeling may not be there for those who watch it for the first time as an adult. For those who grew up with it, revisiting the movie only brings joy. It’s garish, it’s gimmicky, it is hopeful and brilliant and inspiring.

It’s pure childhood whimsy encapsulated in a way that not many — if any — movies dare broach. And that is why, after seeing it for the first time in 2005, we still think of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D is available to stream on Netflix. The sequel is out on Dec. 25.