by David Cornelius
If you’re a Gen-Xer and diehard “Better Off Dead” fanatic who’s been wondering where comic filmmaker Savage Steve Holland has been hiding ever since “Eek! the Cat” went off the air a decade ago, you obviously haven’t been watching much kids’ television these days. After spending several years helming shows over at the Disney Channel, Holland moved over to Nickelodeon, eventually joining the rotating lineup of directors for “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide,” one of the smartest and funniest shows for the tweener set currently on air. With its quirky characters and offbeat sensibilities that essentially make it a live action cartoon, “Ned’s” is a perfect match for Holland, whose memorable work in the 1980s captured a similar anarchic tone toward adolescence.All of this is a long-winded way of introducing “Shredderman Rules,” a made-for-TV Nickelodeon production directed by Holland and starring Ned himself, the gifted young actor Devon Werkheiser. Adapted from Wendelin Van Draanen’s book “Shredderman: Secret Identity,” “Shredderman Rules” is a sweet, witty, thoroughly enjoyable return to form for Holland, whose output at Disney (including episodes of “Lizzie McGuire” and the TV movies “Safety Patrol” and “Stuck in the Suburbs”) had been forgettable at best. Here, matched with a winning script from Russell Marcus and a cast of whip-smart young performers, and when paired with his work on “Ned’s,” he’s finally back to making the sort of stuff that made us love him in the first place.
"Ned's Declassified Guide to Surprisingly Good TV Movies."
Of course, this being a kids’ movie, there are some serious flaws, most notably an oversimplification of story and character, events that strain credibility, moments that exist only to underline and re-underline important plot points, and a finale that involves a villain getting covered in blue septic goo. But forget about that sort of thing. What’s important here is that we have a made-for-basic-cable kid flick that’s actually very amusing all the way through.
Nolan Byrd (Werkheiser) is a typical junior high geek, eternally tormented by school bully Bubba Bixby (Andrew Caldwell). Bubba is a master of noogies, purple nurples, and, of course, the dreaded atomic wedgie. He also is quick with a nickname, leading us to a smart montage of picked-on kids lamenting their Bubba-approved monikers: Byrd Turd, Art the Fart, Man-Hands Miriam, etc. The depressed acceptance of their unfortunate names reveals an honest understanding of the perils of young life.
When Nolan’s impossibly perfect teacher Mr. Green (Tim Meadows) assigns a multimedia report on something “very important to you,” the beleaguered student plans a package exposing Bubba’s bullying ways. Using self-built spy cameras (by this point in the movie, we’ve given up on credibility, so work with me, people), Nolan videotapes a wide variety of abuses, from the simple knock-your-books-out-of-your-hand to the outlandish push-you-down-the-stairs-in-your-own-cello-case, then posts his findings online. To maintain his anonymity (and thus prevent the wrath of Bubba), Nolan’s website is presented by the anonymous superhero Shredderman.
The site is a hit at school, and soon Nolan takes up exposing other injustices: nasty cooks, uncaring teachers, and so on. His crusade is beloved by all, and Shredderman quickly becomes a school-saving underground champion, a G-rated Hard Harry for the internet era. When Nolan discovers Bubba’s dad (Daniel Roebuck), the town’s rich and powerful “sewage king,” is scheming to con the city and pollute a beloved pond, Shredderman must fight to save the day, while simultaneously dealing with the consequences his actions are having on a school whose principal (Mindy Sterling) is quick to punish. Oh, and can he also win the heart of crush-worthy Isabel (Francia Raisa)?
Holland is clearly having a blast with the material, which careens from silly to serious and back again with wild randomness - the result, I assume, of a desire to inject a few “heartfelt” moments into the comedy. (Moments featuring Nolan’s parents - played by Dave Coulier and Clare Carey - are warm and friendly, but ultimately unimportant. It’s best when they’re just used for comic purposes, as both actors fit well with the goofiness of the at-home scenes.) Holland’s knack for comic timing remains impeccable, and his staging of the ridiculously over-the-top finale (which giddily name-checks “King Kong” and which offers a terrific cameo from Holland regular Curtis Armstrong) is a hoot.
Marcus’ screenplay is equally sharp - note that “King Kong” reference, for example, or its handling of decidedly weird secondary characters like Miriam, whose near-stalker obsession with Nolan becomes a wildly funny running gag. Not having read Von Draanen’s book, I can only guess that she, too, deserves credit for taking clichéd kid-saves-the-day plotting and reworking it with verve.
But the real story here is the cast. My fears that Werkheiser would offer up a weak retread of his Ned character were unfounded: his Nolan is someone entirely new, a gloriously geeky champion of nerds everywhere. From the first time we see him power-walking with that oddball strut of his, we realize Werkheiser has something truly special going on. More importantly, the young star’s careful not to turn Nolan into a caricature. He may be a geek, but he’s an ordinary kid first, and while his adventures are outlandish, he never stops feeling like a genuine teenager. “Ned’s” proved Werkheiser is a highly talented youth; “Shredderman” proves he can grow beyond his breakout TV hit with the greatest of ease. This is Werkheiser’s movie all the way, and he carries it like a pro.
Surrounding him are a handful of bright young stars, most notably Caldwell, whose spastic mannerisms seem to be channeling Chris Farley, and whose curiously smart line readings suggest a multi-layered take on a one-dimensional villain. Marisa Guterman, meanwhile, repeatedly steals scenes as Miriam, with her moody, freaked-out weirdness.They all help make “Shredderman Rules” far more memorable than any low-rent Nickelodeon production would ever be expected to be. Sure, it has all the trappings of your average dopey tween comedy (did I mention the blue goo?), but its cast and crew find a way to take such material and work with it in all the right ways.
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originally posted: 09/07/07 12:48:23