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A report card for ‘The Archies’

Zoya Akhtar's ‘The Archies’ isn't too ambitious and often feels like watching a generously budgeted school play

A still from 'The Archies'
A still from 'The Archies'

It is clear that The Archies has not been made for me. A man in my 40s, I am not the target demographic for this frothy movie about teenagers, made for even younger audiences longing to someday become teenagers. This new Netflix adaptation, directed by Zoya Akhtar and starring a wide-eyed cast of new kids, is meant to infect even more wide-eyed kids with its story of a 17-year-old boy—who likes two girls—and his friends. It’s meant to be goodnatured and cute and bubbly.

That, however, is not all that a movie should hold. A film for 10-year-olds should communicate not only with children it is hoping to attract, but with the inner 10-year-old inside those of every age. I’ve bawled through Toy Story 3 and remain a bit frightened of The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The great children’s films tackle complex themes and seed mature ideas, but but even if you consider that a tall order, there is one requirement for all memorable children’s films: originality. Either in treatment or in storytelling, either in motive or in character. It must spark something new.

Also read: Comic relief: The makers of ‘The Archies’ on their new film

Akhtar creates a snowglobe of a world for her Riverdale, set in an Indian hill station in 1964 populated by an Anglo-Indian community, where everyone sports cardigans and updos. They drink hot chocolate, smile at butlers, rollerskate and ride in Impalas. It’s an idyllic hamlet, but it feels too stagey in its picture-perfectness, and, because Akhtar and her co-writers Reema Kagti and Ayesha DeVitre don’t bring much ambition to the project, watching The Archies often feels like watching a generously budgeted school play.

Or a Bandra-only version of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa.

The fancy-dress participants are Agastya Nanda as Archie, Suhana Khan as Veronica, Khushi Kapoor as Betty, Mihir Ahuja as Jughead, Vedang Raina as Reggie, Yuvraj Menda as Dilton, and Dot as Ethel. Of these, Ahuja, who featured in Made In Heaven, and Dot, a gifted young musician who made songs like the excellent Everybody Dances To Techno, are somewhat familiar faces while the rest are freshmen to the spotlight—even if some of them come from spotlit families.

The plot is basic: Someone is taking away a historical Green Park in the middle of Riverdale to build a hotel there, and these schoolkids band together to stop it. So it comes down to the characters, then.

Nanda is genuinely good as Archie. True to the character, he looks mildly concussed and easily amused, and has a likeable nonchalance—be it while singing or sloganeering or lying to girls. He wears the leading man role lightly, as if confused by it. There’s a lovely moment where his father (Suhaas Ahuja, in the film’s most tender performance) tells Archie that artists need to look inward, not outward, and we see him slowly take this in. We see his worldview shift. There’s something to this actor, a boy who doesn’t know his own charm.

It is frankly impossible to correctly grade the others —to see whether they have any talent or simply well-known genes— because the film doesn’t give them enough to do. Vedang Raina captures the Reggie vibe, and Menda’s Dilton has a genuinely adorable shorthand with the gang, but all we can say of, say, Khan’s Veronica is that she says “Archie-kins” with the right bratty lilt. Perhaps most criminally, Jughead, the lazy and sarcastic non-conformist, hardly gets to be in on the fun. Where are those deadpan lines, that enviable metabolism?

The writing is disappointing. This is the sort of film where a montage of the gang campaigning door to door across Riverdale is almost immediately followed by them saying “We must go door to door.” “So what’s stopping you from standing for election?”, asks a character in English, only for the other to reply in Hindi, “Election ke liye bahut paisa lagega.” Like I said, a school play. Therefore we don’t connect with the characters as much as we indulge them.

The few nimble touches include Reggie wanting to be a standup comedian, and a line referencing Ruskin Bond as an up and coming novelist. The only actor having fun is Alyy Khan hamming it up as Mr Lodge, saying things ripped straight from the comics like “For crying out loud.”

The look is good. Akhtar’s cinematographer Nikos Andratsakis does well, and the art direction and costuming is on point. In one scene Betty wears a sweater and Veronica has a familiar polka-dotted scarf wrapped around her head, and it looks very true to the comics. The songs look stylish and cool, the film working better in music video form, though I couldn’t possibly hum any of them if you asked—unlike the insanely catchy #1 hit Sugar Sugar “by The Archies” that came out back in 1969.

There is one moment of significant promise. In class, Archie says he doesn’t care about politics. “Yeh discussion corporate interest vs public interest ke baare mein hai,” explains Dilton, the clunkiness of the line compensated for by his earnestness. Then Archie’s friends break into a song called Everything Is Politics, and it feels like that all this bubblegum build-up will give rise to actual young revolution.

It does not.

What am I, then, to The Archies? To its young cast and its young audience? I guess I’m one of those square teachers—like Coach Clayton or Professor Flutesnoot, neither of whom appear in this film—who suffers their pranks and occasionally indulges their shenanigans, but eventually, has to sit and mark their homework. Somebody has to play spoilsport, and while I can certainly say the students and film-makers all seem to have understood the assignment (that of sweetly playing dress-up), they haven’t delivered anything at all memorable.

Ultimately, The Archies feels blandly artificial. Sweetener Sweetener doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Sugar Sugar.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

The most critically acclaimed film of 2023, Martin Scorsese’s Killers Of The Flower Moon, is streaming on BookMyShow Stream and available to rent on Amazon Prime Video. Dark and relentless, the film shows how awfully the Osage tribe of Native Americans was exploited by white opportunists. It’s a masterpiece.

Also read: As Bhutan readies for elections, a new film speaks of democracy

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