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MOVIE REVIEW : A Lighthearted ‘Little Monsters’

The lighthearted fable “Little Monsters” (citywide) could be called “Beetlejuicemania"--not the real “Beetlejuice,” but an incredible simulation. That’s how uncannily close the manic energy of Howie Mandel’s Maurice, a.k.a. the literalization of the proverbial Monster Under the Bed, is to that of Michael Keaton’s obnoxious-but-ya-gotta-love-him demon from hell.

Like Beetlejuice, the horn-sprouting, saber-toothed Maurice has submonsters pop out of the top of his head for comic shock effect, has limbs that transmogrify into animate beings, has a penchant for rabidly delivered bad one-liners that’s as scary as anything else in his bag of underworld tricks. Regardless of when this was conceived or filmed, the similarities may strike some audiences as a little too close for comfort.

The audience “Little Monsters” is geared toward probably wasn’t even allowed to see “Beetlejuice,” though. This one is aimed squarely at kids, with the target bracket probably somewhere around the 11-ish age of its young hero, Brian, played by Fred Savage of TV’s “Wonder Years.” There’s sweetness and whimsicality in its fantasy, but there’s also a fair amount of gross-out humor that seems designed to delight the nearly pubescent even while it distresses their parents. Some of it is actually funny, if you still have a little brattiness left in your Bratskeller.

It turns out that all those bikes left in the driveway, all those footprints on newly waxed floors, all that ice cream left out to melt--kids aren’t really responsible for any of that at all. It really is a subterranean network of scaly gremlins who only come out at night to wreak havoc and frame the unsuspecting youth from under whose beds they crawl.

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Young Brian manages to befriend Maurice, one of the friendlier specimens of monster prankster, and soon they’re off together to ruin the reputations of small fry across America under cover of night. The high point of inventiveness is when Maurice’s right hand turns into a slobbering dog that proceeds to chew up some poor little gal’s homework; the low point for some (but, again, not for its post-Garbage Pail Kids target market) will be when Maurice mischievously urinates into a jar of apple juice destined for the lunch pail of the local school bully.

The script by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott is most interesting early on, as it parallels Brian’s family problems with his increasing interest in nocturnal hooliganism. There’s a nice, painful little scene in which parents Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton announce to the kids that they’re going to try a trial separation, to which Brian’s little brother pleadingly responds: “I’ll be better! I promise!” With that kind of guilt on a child’s conscience, it’s no wonder that the thrills of a life of underground sabotage hold a special temptation.

“Little Monsters” (MPAA-rated PG for language, crudity and some visuals that might scare the very young) ultimately turns into a special-effects extravaganza, hampered by apparent budgetary limitations, in which Savage and three of his school pals become junior Ghostbusters to save the life of the younger brother held captive in the underworld.

Kids may get the message that you don’t need to be afraid of the dark after all, but adults--still mindful of the parents’ short-lived, easily-solved separation--will know better.

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‘LITTLE MONSTERS’

A United Artists presentation. Producers Jeffrey Mueller, Andrew Licht, John A. Davis. Director Richard Alan Greenburg. Script Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott. Editor Patrick McMahon. Music David Newman. With Fred Savage, Howie Mandel, Daniel Stern, Margaret Whitton, Ben Savage, Rick Ducommun.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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