A hot topic in the movie industry in recent years has been the growing shift from traditional theatrical releases to at-home distribution via internet streaming services—especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on theaters.
Director Robert Rodriguez, who is known in part for the “Spy Kids” series and 2005’s “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” is embracing that change with his new film, “We Can Be Heroes,” which premieres on Netflix on Christmas Day.
“I don’t think I would’ve done a movie just for theatrical,” Rodriguez says, acknowledging that younger audiences tend to rewatch films like this. That’s a problem when it comes to theaters and kids can only see a film once—maybe a couple more times if their parents allow—before home release, he says.
“But the parents know that once it comes out on video, the kids can just watch it as many times as they want … That doesn’t help us so much for the box office,” Rodriguez explains. He says “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” didn’t do well in theaters for that reason, only garnering its own “rabid fan base” later on home video.
“It didn’t make financial sense a lot after a while to make those, because it wasn’t able to ever tell how many kids were actually watching it and benefit from that,” he says, noting that Netflix, on the other hand, can see how many times films like this are rewatched.
So, Rodriguez says he was happy when the streamer approached him to make his first film for younger audiences since 2011’s “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.”
“I was just over the moon,” Rodriguez continues. He was so eager to get back into the genre that he came up with a title and story on the spot.
That film is “We Can Be Heroes,” in which alien invaders kidnap Earth’s superheroes, known as the Heroics, leading their kids—who have abilities ranging from time control to elasticity—to team up to escape government protective custody and rescue their parents.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Pedro Pascal, Adriana Barraza, Boyd Holbrook, Christian Slater, Sung Kang, Hailey Reinhart, Christopher McDonald, J. Quinton Johnson, Brittany Perry-Russell, Jamie Perez and Brently Heilbron are part of the adult cast, with Taylor Dooley reprising Lavagirl and JJ Dashnaw stepping in as Sharkboy (previously played by Taylor Lautner).
“I love making those movies,” continues Rodriguez, who not only directed but wrote, produced, edited and served as the cinematographer for “We Can Be Heroes.” “I love that kids can just go right to it as many times as they want; they don’t have to be driven to a theater or beg somebody to take them. They can watch it opening day, Christmas Day; everyone around the world can watch it. And I know they’re going to just eat it up because they’ll have such easy access to it. So that’s what really got me back.”
Two of the younger cast members—YaYa Gosselin, 11, and Vivien Blair, 8—are already rewatching it, thanks to preview access.
“We filmed this like a year and a half ago, so I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long; and I just can’t wait for Christmas Day for me and my family to cuddle up and have some hot cocoa and watch ‘Heroes’—it’s literally the dream day for me,” YaYa says. In fact, her sisters love it so much that “they just want to watch it over and over and over and over again.”
Vivien, who is “so excited” for its official release, estimates having already seen it four or five times by early December.
In the film, she plays Guppy, the newly introduced daughter of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. While she wasn’t familiar with Rodriguez at first, she said she watched “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” the day she got the audition and “Spy Kids” the next morning—plus, her mom did “a lot” of research on the director.
“It was really so amazing,” Vivien says of her character’s relation to the two heroes. “I mean, Taylor Dooley was so nice. JJ Dashnaw, who plays Sharkboy, he actually is also the stunt coordinator. … So, he’s a big part of the movie and I’m really glad to have him on our team.”
YaYa, who leads the young heroes as Missy Moreno, the daughter of Pascal’s Marcus Moreno, was similarly thrilled to work with the older cast.
“To have your dad as the Mandalorian is so cool, and I totally nerded out when I saw him. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he plays my dad,’” she says, referencing Pascal’s role in the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.” (Rodriguez recently directed an episode of the show, too.) She recalls three days filming with just Rodriguez and Pascal as likely being her favorites of the entire experience.
She “learned so much” from Chopra Jonas (who plays Ms. Granada, the director of the Heroics) and Barraza (Missy’s grandmother) as well, adding, “And honestly, from everybody, all of the adult cast, I learned something from each of them, and I feel like that’ll stick with me my entire career.”
Considering it her first “big” role, YaYa views the film as different from her work on other projects, though.
“I feel like a lot of the TV shows and films that I’ve been in are very serious, most of them are rated R, and so this was a very, very, very different experience from all of those,” says YaYa, who has appeared on series such as CBS’ “FBI: Most Wanted,” Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and USA Network’s “The Purge.” Vivien, on the other hand, may perhaps be best known by audiences for her role in the 2018 film “Bird Box.”
“I’m just so happy that I have a film that I can show to my sisters and my friends and my family—a movie that’s family friendly and that the entire family can watch,” YaYa says.
Though films targeted at younger audiences are hardly new for Rodriguez, he is also known for his work on the “Sin City” and “Machete” films; “Alita: Battle Angel”; “From Dusk Till Dawn”; “Desperado”; “The Faculty”; and “Planet Terror,” his installment of the “Grindhouse” double feature with Quentin Tarantino.
Not only does he view films such as “We Can Be Heroes” and his other family-friendly works as a palate cleanser, but he says “it’s also closer to my identity.”
“I mean, I grew up in a family of 10. I have five kids of my own. I love those kinds of stories that the whole family could watch,” he explains, citing his parents taking them to family-friendly films as his favorite experiences growing up. Now making them, he says they “use the totality of your creativity.”
“We all have a duality,” he continues. “When we go out at night with our buddies, we’re ‘Machete,’ we’re ‘Sin City,’ but during the day with our kids, we’re ‘Spy Kids,’ we’re ‘We Can Be Heroes,’ we’re in that mode. I like separating those out and getting to have a career where I can do both, because that family is such a big part of my life. And getting to do these kinds of films that really nurture kids’ imaginations and creativity and inspire them to be better people through these characters, that’s important and it’s needed and it’s necessary now, because they really are the next generation that’s going to save this world that we’ve all obviously screwed up. So, we have to empower them and validate their ideas because we need them.”
While it’s too early to be certain, Rodriguez hopes to expand on the shared universe of “We Can Be Heroes” and “Sharkboy and Lavagirl.”
“I came up with a bunch of ideas for future movies, but we have to see how this one does, obviously. I would love to (make more), because we’ve already got a template for more,” he says. “I think it’ll do well, but until it happens, you really can’t say, and then no one can invest money in something until they know they know it’s working. So we’ll see. Hopefully everybody sees it and we can make more. I’d love to make more. They’re so fun.”
Double R Productions’ “We Can Be Heroes” releases globally on Netflix on December 25. Photo by Ryan Green/Netflix.