One of the more livelier, spirited and good-natured docs at this year's SXSW film festival, Some Assembly Required features teams of middle school kids from around the country competing in the National Toy Competition (founded by executive producer and former astronaut Sally Ride). Think Spellbound, but with a little less of a personal connection to the kids involved. Basically, schools all over the United States gather up a set of kids who break into teams and brainstorm ideas for new toys or games. Those ideas are then fleshed out and pitched to the toy competition. Roughly, we're looking at around 400 teams to start out with; a number which is eventually cut down to 50 -- and it's those 50 teams who must build their toy or game (for no more than $150) before flying to San Diego to present their baby to a group of judges.
The film follows six teams from schools in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, Brighton, Michigan, Harlem, New York, West Hartford, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. Early on, we watch as each class breaks up into teams to conceptualize different ideas. If it's a board game, what kind of board game? What color? How big are the pieces? What's the shape of the board? The fascinating part of this process was in watching these kids try to dissect what other kids (of the same age) enjoy. Not only is it a wicked fun activity for kids, but it also teaches them to think outside the box at a very young age. But this isn't some birthday party activity -- it's a national competition, and it doesn't take long for the drama to kick in.
Once this 50 competing teams are chosen, we then follow each team as they prepare their toy or game; building it from scratch, testing it out, designing a presentation. Some teams chose a physical activity for their toy, like a nerf-type baseball game you can play in the pool or a punching bag that lights up after you hit it. Others went the more informational route, creating board games that help teach as well as entertain. There was one group from Harlem who came up with a game for the entire family -- where the main goal is to discuss issues like abortion, etc ... Another board game was designed to help kids learn about animals.
As the film jumped between teams, another popular documentary came to mind: Mad Hot Ballroom, which took place entirely in the New York City area. Unfortunately, Some Assembly Required seems to lack -- how shall I say -- something both Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound were able to achieve. I don't want to say heart or passion, because both are present here; I mean, these kids are cute as all hell, and extremely smart to boot. Perhaps it was that the film felt rushed; we never actually got to know these kids, save for a couple with humorous personality traits. Additionally, we're also a bit let down when it comes time for the competition; the rules, awards and prizing are never clearly explained. I suppose there's something to be said for a finale in which children need to perform all they've learned (like Ballroom or Spellbound), then one where what they've created (a physical object) is simply judged by a group of adults.
Kudos go to the artists who created the opening credits -- animation that's just spectacular to watch. As a fun documentary for kids and adults of all ages, Some Assembly Required succeeds on a number of levels. But unlike others that have come before it, what's beneath the surface is never clearly revealed and the final outcome happens too quickly for us to savor it.