Forty or fifty years ago, before Disney made live-action blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the new The Lone Ranger, Disney made live-action films that were quaint adaptations of novels for children and young adults. Most of these films became family classics: Old Yeller, The Parent Trap, Pollyanna, Freaky Friday, That Darn Cat, and others. They also got more recent remakes. Many of them featured animals, and for the most part, they featured children or teenagers in prominent roles.
The North Avenue Irregulars stands out for having no children in main roles (the ones in the film almost seem to be shoehorned in so that they can call it a family film) and no animals that are anything more than comedy gags. This movie has more in common with Pirates of the Caribbean than The Parent Trap. In fact, imagine Will Turner as a small-town minister, Elizabeth Swann as his secretary, and a bunch of female Jack Sparrows as church ladies, with the remaining pirate crew filling out supporting roles. Also, imagine that they are not pirates, but that they are vigilantes determined to take down an illegal gambling ring.
The film opens with two children arriving in a car with their dad to a new house. The new house is next to a church (North Avenue Presbyterian) and the kids immediately go into the church and start exploring, causing havoc for the large number of adults outside who are attempting a cleaning bee.
Alas, that is about all we see of the two children, other than in once scene where the girl asks her father why he has become so obsessed with catching criminals. This is, in fact, a story about the adults. The father in question is the new minister. The six church ladies that will eventually be part of the crime-fighting team are introduced in a crowd, their personalities slowly emerging as they introduce themselves to the new minister.
Immediately, the Reverend tries to revitalize the congregation. He tries to get more people involved in running the parish, which backfires when their savings fund ends up bet on a horse race. The Reverend tries to get the money back, but the law enforcement are in league with the illegal gambling ring. Dismayed and outraged, the Reverend delivers a sermon over the television that attracts the notice of both the head of the gambling ring and of the government.
The government strikes first, attempting to use the Reverend to break the gambling ring. The Reverend is unable to recruit men to help, so he turns to the women of his congregation. The six women come from varying backgrounds and are of different ages, spanning from a young twenty-something to an elderly seventy-something. The government agents are sceptical – and rightly so. Three separate attempts to elicit information and break the ring fail spectacularly and hilariously, but they do find some clues that the Reverend puts together.
The gambling ring strikes back at them as well,recognizing them and realising that they come from the North Avenue church. This makes the church officials nervous and they threaten the Reverend’s job.
Eventually, the government abandons the Reverend and the ladies, but the group decides to keep at it. The story comes to a conclusion Jack Sparrow would be proud of. Moral of story – never mess with clergy, and never ever mess with church ladies! (And some gentlemen after all.)
This story is also about a congregation coming together. They had something to believe in and their community grew stronger. The Reverend tries to modernise the congregation to an extent, and overall has success, but it is the sense that they are working together to better their town and their community, as well as their own church, that brings the women and ultimately the whole congregation together. It is easy for Christians to want to hide within their church walls, as the most reluctant of the church ladies (and the widowed Reverend’s love interest) would rather do. It is easy for anyone to let things keep going the way they are, criminal or not, because they feel powerless. In the end, the North Avenue Irregulars are not powerless. They don’t even care whether or not they have approval from the government or from the church hierarchy. They are pirates, of a sort.