Judge Clark Douglas is working on his cowlick.
"We gotta win that talent show!"
When the original Our Gang shorts were produced (between 1922 and 1944), the cast constantly evolved as the kids inevitably got too old to continue participating. Even so, certain members of the group made bigger impressions than others: Alfalfa, Spanky, Buckwheat and Darla are unquestionably members of the Little Rascals hall of fame. In fact, these particular characters were so distinct and lovable that the franchise has attempted to revive them at various points using different actors. Spanky and Alfalfa were the central characters in an animated version of the series which aired in the 1980s, and they took the spotlight once again in the 1994 feature The Little Rascals. The new straight-to-video comedy The Little Rascals Save the Day provides us with yet another version of the same old characters, and that seems to be a big part of the film's problem—it's stuck in the past and has no idea of how to go about bringing these characters into modern times.
The plot is simple enough. Alfalfa (Drew Justice), Spanky (Jet Jurgensmeyer), Buckwheat (Isaiah Fredericks), Stymie (Connor Berry) and Mary Anne (Jenna Ortega) are all best friends who spend most of their free time together. Summer has finally arrived, and the kids couldn't be more excited about finally getting out of school. Unfortunately, their joy is soon interrupted by a crisis: the bank is about to foreclose on a local bakery run by a kind-hearted old woman the kids affectionately call "Grandma" (Doris Roberts, Everybody Loves Raymond). Unless the kids can find a way to raise $10,000 in two weeks, their favorite grown-up in town will be forced to close her business. Meanwhile, Alfalfa nurses a crush on the cheerful Darla (Eden Wood), while a perpetually exasperated police officer (Lex Medlin, Drop Dead Diva) attempts to work up the courage to propose to the kids' elementary school teacher Miss Crabtree (Valerie Azlynn, Tropic Thunder).
So, you've got a pretty standard "let's put on a show!" plot, a couple of romantic subplots and a run-of-the-mill greedy banker villain (whose son also happens to be Alfalfa's greatest nemesis). It's entirely too easy to see where everything is going, but the plot is mostly a place to hang a bunch of cheerful slapstick sequences. You've got a scene in which the kids attempt to bake a cake (with disastrous results), the scene in which Alfalfa tries his hand at wrestling (with disastrous results) and…well, everything ends in disaster, basically, except during those moments in which the plot needs everything to work out just fine.
There are three major problems with the film which prevented it from working for me. First, there's the thoroughly predictable and lazy story, which I've already noted. Second, the sense of reckless anarchy which fueled the best Our Gang shorts is completely absent here; replaced with a safe, bland fondness for colorful-but-contained antics and trite life lessons. Third, the movie struggles to find a way to bring these iconic characters into the present. For the most part, the Rascals look and sound just like they always have—at a glance, you'd swear they had been imported from the depression era—but the odd period movie vibe is interrupted when the film has them, say, sing a cheesy, modern-sounding pop song. Whatever world The Little Rascals Save the Day exists in doesn't feel anything like the one the rest of us are living in, and the odd push-and-pull between the flick's nostalgia for the old and casual awareness of the new is consistently distracting.
As for the performances…well, the adults go over the top (as I'm sure they were instructed to do), and the kids feel like pale imitations of the originals. No matter how talented these young folks may be, to see this film's version of Alfalfa and Spanky is a bit like hearing someone other than Mel Blanc voice Bugs Bunny, watching someone other than Peter Sellers play Inspector Clouseau, or seeing Jim Varney play Jed Clampett. Rather than attempting the impossible task of recreating characters who have already been depicted in rather definitive fashion, why not take a cue from Hal Roach and start fresh with a new set of precocious youngsters? I'm sure that there are plenty of marketing experts out there who will be quick to tell me why this suggestion is ill-advised, but there's no getting around the fact that The Little Rascals Save the Day is pretty much dead on arrival.
The Little Rascals Save the Day (Blu-ray) at least benefits from a stellar 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The palette is basically what you'd expect from a straight-to-DVD film aimed primarily at kids: bright, colorful, generally sort of tacky-looking. However, detail and depth are strong throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fine, too, presenting the music, dialogue and occasionally chaotic sound design with clarity. Speaking of the music—ugh, that updated version of the Our Gang theme (complete with a shrill "la-la-la" children's choir) is just awful. Supplements included some deleted scenes, a gag reel, some animatics, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
It's clear that The Little Rascals Save the Day has a good deal of affection for the original shorts, going to far as to provide beat-for-beat reworkings of certain classic scenes throughout the film. Even so, that affection doesn't go a long way towards making the experience tolerable. As is often the case with middling straight-to-DVD films aimed at youngsters, very young children will probably enjoy the mayhem, but adults will tune out quickly.
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