Grade: C
Entire family: No (only small children will like it)
2014, 98 min., Color
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: C

The original Little Rascals movies were comedy shorts created during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Like The Three Stooges shorts, The Little Rascals installments from Hal Roach Studios were driven by character interaction and antics, with the kind of exaggerated effects and outcomes that would drive TV comedies for many years to come.

You’ve seen them on countless shows: oven doors that pry open with monstrous, Blob-like balls of dough after the Rascals added too much yeast; suds that also grow out of control when too much soap is added to the laundry or bath; or the Rascals’ Rube Goldberg contraptions that almost always misfired—like a dog-washing machine that went loco. The plots were simple cases of misunderstanding, attempts to raise money, attempts to impress or behave, challenges to one of them, visiting relatives, or various family mini-crises.

When the original short comedies were made and shown in theaters, the Rascals appealed because these were Depression-era kids trying to make it as best they could, whether improvising with play or attempting to do the same thing with work. Often they tried to help the adults, and just as often things got messed up. People whose lives seemed to run the same gamut could identify, and the cute factor made viewers smile. It was the transposition of the adult world onto children’s.

Two decades later, when the Rascals were a fixture on American television, that connection of identification was gone, but kids from the ‘50s found it interesting to go back in time and see what it took to live through the Depression. The Rascals’ inventions were ingenious, and they were cute as the Dickens.

But the Rascals can’t seem to make the leap into the contemporary era. A 1994 attempt failed, and this one from Alex Zamm, whose previous films are mostly sequels, doesn’t fare any better. Small children might find their antics funny, but those who remember the Rascals will see hit-or-miss moments that either capture the spirit and characters or miss the mark entirely.  

One problem is that the simple, familiar plots may have worked in the span of 10 minutes, but when you have 93 minutes to fill it feels utterly deficient. Here, several plots from the old Rascals shorts are recycled, with one of them—raise money to save Grandma Larson’s Bakery—the thread that holds the film together.

Strangely, Zamm made the decision to mix periods. The Rascals look, dress and talk pretty close to their Depression-era counterparts, but other elements make it seem as if the story is set in the ‘60s, while still others evoke contemporary times. The result is more confusion than the sense of timelessness that the filmmakers were obviously seeking. I much preferred the approach taken with The Brady Bunch movies, where the Brady’s were an anachronism in a world that had passed them by. It made more sense than what we get here.

LittleRascalsscreenHere, the kids dress as they did during the Depression, while the teacher and other students wear contemporary dress and the teacher has an iPod dock on her desk. The songs are things like “I Got You Babe,” from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Wait, songs? Yes. The kids sing and perform, and the way they plan to save Grandma’s bakery is to win a talent contest. But a lot of viewers may think that Grandma doesn’t deserve her bakery if she has the poor judgment to say to the kids, “Would you watch the bakery for me?” as she leaves them to wreak havoc. Here, rich kid Waldo’s dad (Greg Germann) drives a yellow Hummer, and Waldo drives a smaller customized golf-cart version—never mind that he’s too young to drive a vehicle on the streets. And never mind that we never learn why Grandma’s bakery, with its blend of ‘50s and ‘30s decor, is the only place that Waldo’s dad can build his phallic-shaped super mall.

Even tougher to swallow is the clubhouse. Kids don’t hang out in clubhouses these days. In the Depression the Rascals had a ramshackle place built out of wood scraps, cardboard, and anything they could find. Here, it’s like they called Treehouse Masters to build a “shack” treehouse on the same lot as Grandma’s bakery, one that even has a stained glass window in the front door . . . and hub caps hanging on the outside like decoration. The two elements don’t go together, but they do illustrate the strange vibe that The Little Rascals Save the Day gives off.

The kids try hard to ape their predecessors, but do so with mixed results. Spanky (Jet Jurgensmeyer) isn’t nearly as portly or adult-looking as the original, but at least half the time he gets Spanky’s way of speaking down pat. The other half? About like the rest of the characters, who don’t even come close—with the exception of Eden Wood, who plays Darla. She not only looks the part, but also manages to update the character in believable ways. But where’s Froggie? Why isn’t Alfalfa’s voice crackling as much? And what’s with the palm trees? Weren’t the Rascals supposed to be in New York? The most “rascally” this film gets is when the kids crank up their pet-spa, which will bring smiles and remind fans of the original short that spawned it. Too bad the whole film wasn’t more like this.

As I said, this one is strictly for young children.