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KIDS ON FILM

'Little Rascals' Runs on a Gang Plank of Old-Fashioned Fun

August 18, 1994|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a staff writer for the Times' Life & Style section

In "The Little Rascals," the love-struck Alfalfa falls out with his buddies in the He-Man Womun Haters Club but joins forces with them in a soap box derby to vanquish bullies Butch, Woim and snobby rival Waldo Aloysius Johnston III. (Rated PG)

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It wasn't easy for kids to detail what they liked about this recent foray into nostalgia that reproduces scenes from the 1920s "Our Gang" comedy series in modified '90s style.

But the younger ones at least hooted and howled with each broad-brush mishap and wide-eyed, gasping reaction of Porky, Darla, Buckwheat and the ring-eyed dog, Petey--the gang their parents remember only in black and white.

The young boy behind me had obviously seen it before.

"Here's the funny part," he said, alerting his friend.

In the scene, Porky and a buddy are fishing back-to-back when, unbeknown to them, their hooks become tangled, setting up a seesaw that ends with a narrow-eyed Porky in the drink.

"Oh-oh," the boy said when a tree branch snags a girl's wig off Porky, who has disguised himself as a ballet student to escape the bullies.

"Oh, no!" he cried when Alfalfa climbs out of Waldo's swimming pool in front of Darla and discovers he has left his underpants in the water.

Not everyone was similarly hooked. Nine-year-old David Katz, an action-film buff, said, "It seemed kind of slow."

But for most, the chuckles began early with the mere appearance of Petey galloping full speed with his tongue hanging out.

Even if the characters don't look or sound like anyone kids today might find on their block, what could be more fun than a world without adults, where kids make the rules, have access to endless supplies of costumes, and the worst thing that can happen is being sloshed with a bucket of pickle juice?

There's little to offend, and the well-cast and -coached actors are as adorable as the originals, even if their edges are smoothed out.

"They were really good," said Megan Dolan, 10. "It was really funny and stuff." She said she laughed hardest when Alfalfa lost his briefs.

Nick McMahon, 9, said his favorite characters were Alfalfa and Petey, who both have a talent for ear-wiggling.

The setting is modern-day Los Angeles, but director Penelope Spheeris carefully reproduced the gang's Depression Era-look. Alfalfa still has his cowlick, bow tie and suspenders holding up the too-short pants. Buckwheat still has braids.

Spheeris also obviously took pains to find vacant lots, palm trees, brick buildings, cracked sidewalks and chain-link fences with a time-neutral feel about them.

The humor is kiddie slapstick having to do mostly with whoopie cushions, frogs in ballet class, kitty-litter sandwiches and creative name-calling.

Only one of the several celebrity cameos makes an adult crack (Reba MacIntire asks Alfalfa, "Is that a cowlick or are you just glad to see me?"). Mostly, the kids' pranks are gentle '90s replays of the originals; for instance, putting dish soap in Alfalfa's drinking water so bubbles come out of his mouth when he sings a love song to his amour, Darla.

But in 1994, he sings, "All I need is the air that I breathe and to love you . . . "

He also makes 1994 remarks such as, "I'm a sensitive male in touch with my feminine side." Darla talks modern too, calling Waldo "a hunk." The snob Waldo forgets Alfalfa's name, confusing it with a more trendy grain, Falafel.

Ultimately, the modern rascals don't tolerate bashing males or females. In the film's only stab at moralizing, the woman-haters learn to love and respect females, agreeing even to integrate the club.

This seemed about right to the kids.

Megan remembered when boys and girls hated each other way back in the old preschool days. Now the boys have slacked off some, she said.

As for what girls think about boys now, she said, "They're OK, I guess."

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