Those who grew up watching “The Little Rascals” on murky UHF TV stations may well be intrigued by the idea of introducing their kids to this full-color, bigscreen version. Still, the challenge of stretching those mildly diverting shorts to feature length remains formidable, and one has to wonder whether an audience exists beyond nostalgic parents and their young children — in short, anyone between the ages of 10 and 30. Sporadically clever and thoroughly inoffensive, this Universal release at best seems destined for returns along “Beethoven”/”Problem Child” lines.
One has to admire director Penelope Spheeris’ perseverance in dealing with revered TV material, having last tackled “The Beverly Hillbillies” and, before that, the neoclassic “Wayne’s World.”
As with “Hillbillies,” this movie’s principal achievement may be its slavish devotion to the original and the remarkable casting done in terms of finding tots who closely resemble their rascally forebears.
One gains a real appreciation for what the filmmakers have undertaken only during outtakes that roll over the closing credits, providing some indication of what it must have been like to work with a cast composed almost entirely of 5 -to-9-year-olds, as plaintive voices intone, “Don’t look at the camera, honey” from offscreen.
After the initial kick associated with seeing the characters, “Rascals” goes about the business of setting up a rather conventional plot, as love-smitten Alfalfa (Bug Hall) violates the rules of the all-male He-Man Womun-Haters Club by wooing the decidedly feminine Darla (cherubic Brittany Ashton Holmes).
This irks his pal, Spanky (Travis Tedford), and inadvertently results in the destruction of their clubhouse. Needing $ 350 to rebuild, the group embarks on various efforts to raise the money, ultimately getting its chance via a go-cart race that also includes the new object of Darla’s affection, rich kid Waldo (Blake McIver Ewing, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Culkin clan).
It’s hard to believe that input from five writers was needed to come up with that premise. As with “The Flintstones,” which had the advantage of ample visual gimmickry, the quintet struggles at spreading the material over 80 minutes, turning in amusing moments but also some rather arid stretches.
The real problem involves finding a steady source of laughs, as opposed to mild grins. While much of the fun involves hearing moppets deliver lines like “You took the best years of my life,” it’s a novelty that tends to yield grad-ually diminishing returns.
The filmmakers do make clever use of adult cameos, from Donald Trump as the rich kid’s father to Whoopi Goldberg as Buckwheat’s mom.
TV tykes Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (“Full House”) and Raven-Symone (“The Cosby Show”) also appear in blink-and-miss-them scenes.
For the most part, though, this is the kids’ show, and they acquit themselves reasonably well.
Difficult as it is to single any of them out, Holmes proves a real scene-stealer as Darla, while Kevin Jamal Woods, as Stymie, may be the most natural actor in the bunch.
Credit Spheeris at least with bringing a certain energy to the simple proceedings, and the technical crew with creating a world that looks modern yet still feels comfortably enmeshed in a 1930s sensibility.
William Ross helps by deftly weaving his own score around the recognizable “Little Rascals” theme, while the song score appropriately includes Randy Newman’s “Short People.”