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Rotten Rascals

Our Gang today stuck on shtick from yesterday

Who among us cannot warble their happy theme tune? The Little Rascals, originally Our Gang, was introduced in the 1930s, was tweaked to fit into the '40s, and continues to live on through the magic of reruns. Viewers watch the ragtag bunch with nostalgia, longing for a simpler, happier time. But trapped in a theater viewing the new Little Rascals, I didn't want something simpler and happier. I longed instead for a scene in which Alfalfa's mouth was stuffed with garlic and his head chopped off with a shovel so he might never rise again. Actually, early on in the film there's a fantasy scene set on the high cliffs of a foggy isle, and when I saw it I felt hope. In any Universal picture of original Little Rascals vintage, this spooky backlot scenery would be the setup for an angry mob of villagers carrying crude implements and torches. Alas, in this Universal picture no creature-killing peasants appeared. Alfalfa lived. Alfalfa sang. Alfalfa sang and soap bubbles came out of his mouth.

Any Rascals fan has seen this scene more than once. So why reshoot the raillery for contemporary kids? They've all got cable and VCRs and can enjoy Hal Roach's irascible snot-noses any day of the week. If they want a mouthful of bubbles, they eat Pop-Rocks.

Rascals director Penelope Spheeris first attracted attention with her Decline of Western Civilization movies, but of late she's become the movies' reigning retro-queen. She was the eye behind the viewfinder for Wayne's World and The Beverly Hillbillies, two films that had their stories and their audiences ready and waiting. The Little Rascals fits into this same ready-and-waiting category. At this point one can admire Ms. Spheeris' Protestant work ethic, but whether or not she has any artistic, or even hack-work, ideal is open to debate.

The new Rascals' capers are carefully shot on locations that show the L.A. skyline on the horizon. Otherwise, the whole show is the same old shtick -- scads of the stock gags shoved into a feature film. The plot's familiar, too: Alfalfa loses face with his woman-hating, he-man friends by falling for Darla. Darla falls for the rich kid. A talent show takes up part of the middle of the movie and then there's a big go-cart race. The suspense is nonexistent.

The original Rascals stuck to two-reelers and then TV shows. This time, the wacky kids are trotted out for 72 long minutes of mugging and pratfalls. Small children can sit still through this, but only because they're numbed. The children I saw in the audience were too bored to misbehave. Imagine: a theater auditorium almost full of kids with no wild ones running up and down the isles squealing about the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. No pre-schoolers bouncing in their seats, humming tunelessly to songs of their own invention. Instead, the children sat, glassy-eyed and silent, in their seats.

On screen, our gang was more animated, but they simply didn't have anything to do, really, but be cute. They're even cute while the credits roll. (The dog, by the way, is great, though the monkey sucks.)

Hal Roach did admirably dumb things with kids and animals in his Little Rascals, but that was then and this is now. The original Rascals weren't loved for their stunts; they were loved for getting away with what every kid wanted to do. And if the new Little Rascals doesn't give modern kids that needed thrill, fear not. There is a low-budget series that offers cheap shots and juvenile humor for our times. It offers rascals (if not Rascals) who get away with being completely stupid and not having to worry about the economy or the environment or full-scale thermonuclear war. It does what this movie couldn't, and for a lot less money. It's called Beavis and Butthead. (The MTV generation also has a Deanna Durbin, by the way. It's Clarissa Darling of Clarrisa Explains It All on Nickelodeon.)

The Little Rascals.
Directed by Penelope Spheeris. Starring Travis Tedford, Bug Hall and Brittany Ashton Holmes.

Rated PG-13.

72 minutes.

 
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