MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Little Rascals’ Updates a Lost Age of Innocence : The film blends sophistication and affection, but needs more slapstick and less adult repartee.
Between 1922 and 1944 producer Hal Roach turned out countless “Our Gang” comedies, featuring the antics of a beloved bunch of youngsters engaged in everyday exploits that were as endearing as they were hilarious. The series received new life with the advent of TV, where they were shown as “The Little Rascals” since MGM owned the rights to the title “Our Gang.”
“The Little Rascals” has now become a stylistically venturesome but uneven new film by Penelope Spheeris, who brought “The Beverly Hillbillies” to the big screen with a successful blend of sophistication and affection. She brings those same qualities to this film, but it isn’t as funny as it ought to be. Even so, it is unmistakably the work of a distinctive filmmaker whose work is always worthy of attention and rewarding in one aspect or another.
In the opening shot, which shows Alfalfa (Bug Hall) sitting on the front steps of a modest white clapboard cottage of the early ‘20s, you detect a TV antenna on the roof. Surely, an oversight, but no: This “Little Rascals” takes place in the present. What Spheeris has done is to dress her Gang in more or less vintage attire and film largely but not slavishly in older L.A. neighborhoods. This tactic really pays off, and is the film’s key strength, which is to evoke the past in such a way as to suggest an innocence lost, for those locales have faded surely from the time when Roach might well have used them himself.
The plot line is rightly simple. The boys have formed their “He-Man Woman Haters Club” just as the sweet-natured Alfalfa has developed a crush on pretty little Darla (Brittany Ashton Holmes). From Alfalfa’s conflicting loyalties comes a string of skirmishes, misunderstandings and adventures culminating in a lively go-cart race.
The problem with “The Little Rascals” is one of content rather than form. What the film needs is lots more classic slapstick, sight gags and pranks and lots less adult repartee. We need more chances to laugh out loud, as when Alfalfa and his best pal Spanky (Travis Tedford) are forced to disguise themselves as ballerinas and then proceed to wreak havoc on a little girls’ “Nutcracker Suite” recital. Too much of the film is too reminiscent of the kiddie faux-gangster movie “Bugsy Malone,” which had the strength of being entirely a period piece. Since Spheeris’ film is set, more or less, in the real world, it’s creepy when Alfalfa and Darla, 9 and 5, respectively, carry on like romantic teen-agers. But then even Shirley Temple’s vintage impersonation of Mae West probably wouldn’t play as innocently as it did 60 years ago.
On the plus side are the film’s many surprise cameos by adult celebrities (most of which are amusing), its great look, its terrific pacing and its punchy eclectic soundtrack. Many of the film’s 13 key Rascals are as appealing as Hall, and as Buckwheat, Ross Elliott Bagley reveals an especially live-wire personality. “The Little Rascals” is such an emphatically well-shaped, well-crafted picture that you wish you could have enjoyed it more than you did.
* MPAA rating: PG, for some crude dialogue. Times guidelines: Even though a couple of the youngsters are presented as romantically precocious , the film is definitely family entertainment.
‘The Little Rascals’
Travis Tedford: Spanky
Bug Hall: Alfalfa
Brittany Ashton Holmes: Darla
Kevin Jamal Woods: Stymie
A Universal presentation. Director Penelope Spheeris. Producers Michael King, Bill Oakes. Executive producers Gerald R. Molen, Deborah Jelin Newmeyer, Roger King. Screenplay by Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur & Spheeris; from a story by Spheeris & Robert Wolterstorff & Mike Scoot and Guay & Mazur. Cinematographer Richard Bowen. Editor Ross Albert. Costumes Jami Burrows. Music William Ross. Production designer Larry Fulton. Art director Gae Buckley. Set decorator Linda Spheeris. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
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