This is one sharp pussycat. Sensationally exuberant, imaginatively crafted and intoxicatingly clever, "Josie and the Pussycats" shrewdly recycles a trifling curio of 1970s pop-culture kitsch as the linchpin for a freewheeling, candy-colored swirl of adventure, hijinks and prickly satirical barbs.

This is one sharp pussycat. Sensationally exuberant, imaginatively crafted and intoxicatingly clever, “Josie and the Pussycats” shrewdly recycles a trifling curio of 1970s pop-culture kitsch as the linchpin for a freewheeling, candy-colored swirl of comicbook adventure, girl-power hijinks and prickly satirical barbs. Though clearly aimed at an under-25 female demographic, pic has sufficient across-the-board appeal to be a crossover hit and should earn a kit and caboodle of cash before lapping up greater riches in ancillary markets.

While remaining reasonably faithful to the spirit of two short-lived (16 episodes each) but much-rerun TV cartoon shows — “Josie and the Pussycats” (1970) and “Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space” (1972) — which in turn were inspired by a popular Archie Comics series, writers-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (“Can’t Hardly Wait”) have slightly expanded the central characters and significantly altered the overall tone.

As before, the three leads — plucky singer-guitarist Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook), ditzy blond drummer Melody Valentine (Tara Reid) and levelheaded bassist Valerie Brown (Rosario Dawson) — are the hard-rocking members of a girl group. In this version, however, they’re introduced as an unknown garage band, not a successful touring act.

And instead of battling diabolical villains in Aztec pyramids or criminal masterminds near the Grand Canyon, Josie and the Pussycats face the serious challenge of being true to themselves, and to each other, while ensnared in star-making machinery.

Borrowing a few pages from Peter Watkins’ dead-serious “Privilege” (1967) and Bob Rafelson’s comic-fantasy “Head” (1968), Kaplan and Elfont imagine a world in which pre-fab pop stars are manufactured and sold to masses of pliable, trend-conscious teens, while shadowy government-corporate co-conspirators manipulate those masses to maintain social order and, more important, a booming economy. The self-reflective cheekiness is almost breathtaking in its brazenness: “Josie” itself is unabashedly a textbook example of the kind of product sold by the system that pic satirizes.

Early on, when “Josie” introduces DuJour, a fave-rave boy band that’s a spot-on burlesque of ‘N Sync, the filmmakers bare their satirical claws. From there, it’s a quick hop to DuJour’s private plane, an aircraft that’s top-heavy with product-placements for Target stores, Ivory dish detergent, etc., etc. (Prominent displays of name-brand merchandise serve as a deliciously nasty running gag throughout the pic.)

Unfortunately, DuJour doesn’t remain aloft very long: Their flight is sabotaged by manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) after the band members air their suspicions about subliminal messages being added to their songs.

Driven to find new nobodies who can be transformed overnight into pop music icons, Frame fortuitously arrives in Riverdale, U.S.A., where he discovers Josie and the Pussycats and signs them to a contract with Mega Records. Suddenly they’re whisked to New York, and joined for the ride by Alan M. (Gabriel Mann), a dreamy-looking folk singer who’s like catnip for Josie; Alexander Cabot (Paulo Costanzo), the group’s none-too-bright original manager; and Alexandra Cabot (Missi Pyle), Alexander’s sister, a sour-tempered vixen who also has the hots for Alan M.

In less than a week, Josie and the Pussycats are chart-topping superstars with millions of frantic fans, oodles of commercial endorsements and a cover-story profile in Rolling Stone. But success comes at a high price. Fiona (Parker Posey), the spectacularly vain-glorious CEO of Mega Records, uses the Pussycat CDs to slip subliminal hard-sell messages into the brains of teens everywhere. Kaplan and Elfont cram so many in-jokes, knowing allusions and on-target parodies into their pic that a second viewing may be mandatory for anyone who wants to savor all of the gags. Funniest bits involve efforts to control trends among teens (“Gatorade is the new Snapple!”, “Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon!”). No less a notable than Mr. Moviefone is embroiled in the stealthy brainwashing.

And MTV’s Carson Daly — played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Carson Daly — reveals his true colors as a ruthlessly efficient co-conspirator and potential murderer.

Cook is a nifty Josie, Reid is a funny dumb bunny, and Dawson hits all the right notes. Cumming goes just far enough over the top; Posey goes a little too far. Mann, looking and sounding very much like a younger and less threatening James Spader, is suitably boy-toyish. Costanzo and Pyle are broad but amusing.

Production values are just about purr-fect. With a little help from famed record producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who’s credited as an executive producer, original songs are irresistibly upbeat with insidiously effective hooks. (Expect massive soundtrack CD sales, and heavy airplay for punkish prom-queenly single “Three Small Words.”) Production design by Jasna Stefanovich enhances pic’s ironic edge with all the name brand glitz and glam that money can buy.

But seriously, folks: A strong case could be made for “Josie and the Pussycats” as a revealing and richly detailed snapshot of contemporary pop culture. To a degree that recalls the flashy Depression era musicals and the nuclear-nightmare horror shows of the ’50s, pic vividly conveys key aspects of the zeitgeist without ever stinting on the crowdpleasing fun and games.

It’s made for the megaplexes, but it’s also one for the time capsule.

Josie and the Pussycats

Production

A Universal Pictures (in U.S.) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (foreign) release of a Riverdale/Marc Platt production. Produced by Marc Platt, Tracey Edmonds, Chuck Grimes, Tony DeRosa-Grund. Executive producers, Kenneth Edmonds, Michael Silberkleit, Richard Goldwater. Co-producer, Grace Gilroy. Directed, written by Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, based on characters appearing in Archie Comics.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Matthew Libatique; editor, Peter Teschner; additional editing, Gabriel Wrye; music, John Frizzell; production designer, Jasna Stefanovich; art director, Kelvin Humenny; set designers, Vivien Nishi, Jennifer Donaldson, Anneke Van Oort; set decorator, Johanne Hubert; costume designer, Leesa Evans; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Eric J. Batut; supervising sound editor, Cameron Frankley; sound designer, Paul N.J. Ottosson; assistant director, Jim Brebner; second unit director, Berry Thomas; second unit camera, Ron Williams. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24, Houston, April 5, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Josie McCoy - Rachael Leigh Cook Melody Valentine - Tara Reid Valerie Brown - Rosario Dawson Wyatt Frame - Alan Cumming Fiona - Parker Posey Alan M. - Gabriel Mann Alexander Cabot - Paulo Costanzo Alexandra Cabot - Missi Pyle Agent Kelly - Tom Butler Carson Daly - Carson Daly

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