Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Jodie Foster, Vincent D'Onofrio
Director:  Peter Care
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  November 5, 2002

“Blake…a little advanced, don't you think?”

“Not really, Sister.  It's written simply enough for a six year old.”

“So are the instructions for a handgun.”

Film ***

I share a few things in common with the young heroes of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.  I went to Catholic school in the 1970s.  I escaped almost daily into a fantasy world of adventure and super powers.  I even had a nun for a math teacher.

I lacked their experience, but unlike Tim Sullivan (Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Hirsch), I was a little more cautious about attaining it.  I could identify more with the somewhat hesitant Francis and his first love and first kiss with Margie Flynn (Malone) than I could with the restless Tim, who, as Francis points out, creates trouble for himself out of nothing more than boredom.

The past few years have seen a small but possibly growing number of intelligent and thoughtful coming of age films, maybe in response to the endless stream of brainless teen comedies that have been pouring out of Hollywood's garbage chute.  I can't quite rank this one as highly as films like George Washington or Ratcatcher, but it's still a far sight better and more daring than most adolescent fare being offered today.

Consider the bold choice of using full-blown animation to represent not the protagonists' fantasy lives, but their frustrations, their pains, their hopes and fears.  Tim and Francis and their friends have been creating a comic book world for themselves, and in an imaginative touch, those characters come to life in sequences produced by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane.  Sometimes the segues between fantasy and reality are a little jarring, but I still applaud the effort and the choice.

In the boys' minds (and yes, they are altar boys), their strict teacher Sister Assumpta (Foster) is their enemy; the embodiment of confinement and conformity.  “I fear for you souls,” she tells them, and she means it.  She's wise enough to see that with their behavior, the time may come to make reckoning for those souls sooner rather than later.

The movie philosophically presents adolescence as both a fun and a cruel time, which of course, it is.  Precious innocence is lost, valuable experience is gained…it's a time of endless possibilities that seems strangled by short-sightedness.  This film offers humor and heart in a wide berth of explorations for which any one might have been enough for its own movie.

There are moments we treasure, like Francis' first tender moments with Margie, and there are moments that make us wince, such as Margie's terrible secret that only gets fully revealed later on.  There are moments of laughter, as the way the animation depicts the boys' visions of themselves and their authority figures, and moments of sadness that come in the form of unexpected tragedy.

There are moments we believe with all our hearts, and there are moments that don't comfortably fit into what is otherwise a thinking person's movie about teens.  The ambition is there, however, with the courage to back it up, making it easy to forgive a few missteps along the way.  At least they were steps taken with valor and not timidity.

I really loved this cast, especially the three young leads.  Jena Malone continues to blossom into a formidable young actress, and Emile Hirsch dutifully protects our emotional investment with his thoughtful performance.  But special mention must go to Kieran Culkin, whose star continues to rise.  I think he's completely escaped the shadow of his more famous but decidedly less talented older brother, and proves himself capable of great range and contemplation of character.

Jodie Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio, both A list actors in their own right, are content to put their talents to supporting use here, giving the film and their young co-stars just the buoyancy they need to shine.  This is a solid team effort across the board.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys isn't a perfect movie, but it's still a good one.  It mines for and manages to bring up a good deal of gold; we can excuse the occasional rocks and gravel that comes up with it.

BONUS TRIVIA: This isn't the first screen pairing of Jena Malone and Jodie Foster…the former played the younger version of the latter in Contact!

Video ***

In both video and audio, this is a tale of two films.  The live action portion of Altar Boys looks perfectly fine, if maybe a tad softer and less detailed than most major releases and more of an independent film appearance.  But the animated sequences look top notch, with strong definition, bold colors, and plenty of action for your player and monitor to sift through.  And though not mentioned on the box, rest assured, this IS an anamorphic transfer.

Audio ***

Likewise, the 5.1 mix benefits from the animated sequences.  While the majority of the picture is dialogue oriented, with spoken lines clean and clear and a medium amount of dynamic range, the animated action parts kick in with full audio glory, making dynamic use of front and rear stage discretion and sending plenty of kick through the subwoofer.  You get the best of both worlds with this DVD!

Features ****

This is a well-loaded disc, beginning with a commentary track from director Peter Care and writer Jeff Stockwell, who discuss the making of the picture, working with the cast, the development from the original novel, and more.  A 5 minute promotional featurette doesn't offer much, so opt instead for the “Anatomy of a Scene” special from The Sundance Channel…it's more involved and gets us closer to the actors and creators.

The disc also features a collection of the animated scenes together, with optional commentary from Todd McFarlane, production notes, a trailer, two TV spots, some deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, talent files, bonus trailers, and some content for your DVD ROM.  The comic book styled menu screens are a nice touch as well.


The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys brought back some memories.  It enthralled me at some moments, bewildered me at others, but kept me emotionally involved and recognizing it as a movie with the guts to go for greatness, even if it fell a little short.  Solid performances and intelligent handling make this one worth checking out.