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Film review: Little Rascals, The

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Why anyone would want to remake "The Little Rascals" in the first place is a mystery. And why co-writer/director Penelope Spheeris, who scored a hit with the miserable "Beverly Hillbillies" last year, would choose to mix modern-day and antiquated sensibilities, seems equally mysterious.

But here it is, a big-screen "Little Rascals" for the '90s . . . sort of.

If you remember the "Our Gang" comedies of the 1930s (dubbed "The Little Rascals" when they came to television in the 1950s), you'll recognize the characters — Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Stymie, Porky, Buckwheat, etc. Spheeris has done a good job of casting actors who resemble the old cast and their characterizations are virtually identical. (Though the use of the original kids' surnames, such as Spanky McFarland — which were the actors' real names in the old series — seems rather odd.)

But the story, plotting and dialogue seem forced and artificial, and there is none of the natural spark or the energy and wit that made the "Our Gang" short films so amusing and original.

The story has Spanky heading up the Woman-Haters Club in an old, ramshackle clubhouse. The gang is declaring its hatred of women, as well as getting ready for the big box-car race, when they discover a traitor in their midst. It seems Alfalfa has become smitten with Darla.

Some of the young actors are better than others, and some skate by on sheer "cuteness." In fact, the only real actor in the bunch seems to be Blake McIver Ewing, a Macaulay Culkin look-alike who plays a snobbish rich kid.

Surprisingly, many of the jokes — from gags about Alfalfa's spiked cowlick and his crooning in a voice that sounds like cracked glass to the climactic box-car race — seem recycled from the old shorts. And mixed in are a few modern references and very brief guest celebrity appearances — including Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks, Daryl Hannah, Reba McEntire, George Wendt and Donald Trump.

But none of this makes for a particularly amusing film, and it certainly has trouble holding up for feature length.

Whether kids will be drawn to "The Little Rascals" (rated PG for some mild vulgarity and comic violence) remains to be seen, of course. And whether Spheeris intended this as nostalgia for adults for something "new" for modern kids may never be known.

Either way, it's pretty tepid fare.