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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Alvin and the Chipmunks (review)

Carry a Toon

There was an Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon in the 1980s? Huh. I had totally forgotten about that, and I was watching cartoons in the 80s. (There was also an animated feature film in 1987, which I’d also forgotten about.) This big-screen adaptation is based on that cartoon, some fans are saying, but not really: it’s based on three fake singing forest rats from the 1950s. It’s hardcore evidence of what should have been a pop culture novelty gone disturbingly mainstream. Isn’t that enough?
This new Alvin and the Chipmunks is a reboot story, as we movie geeks say: it starts from the beginning, pretending that a story that we’re all intimately familiar with is brand new. And so we meet Alvin, Simon, Theodore, child chipmunks orphaned by their hippie chipmunk parents, as they struggle to survive on their own in the big bad wild — they have not yet encountered Dave Seville, who will bizarrely decide to raise the squirrel trio as his own adopted young’uns and put them to work singing for their supper, almost literally. It’s pretty indescribably adorable, actually, as the boys — CGI in a live-action world, “CGI” being a fancy 21st-century way of saying “cartoon” — croon that “You Had a Bad Day” song in their rodential falsetto while stashing nuts in their tree home for the incipient winter. For a flick with enormous potential for freaking out anyone over the age of three and driving you screaming from the theater, Alvin starts off on a robustly not-awful note. Tiny furry nut-gathering mammals trying to cheer you up via song turns out to be surprisingly merry.

And the movie maintains that note, for the most part, which is even more surprising. The lads’ tree is chopped down to become the lobby Christmas decoration for a Los Angeles office building, and via shenanigans too complicated to go into but that work out plausibly well (as movies about singing chipmunks go), the arboreal rats end up shacked up with aspiring songwriter Dave Seville, who writes chipper tunes with gloomy lyrics that no one wants to buy. Kevin Smith company player Jason Lee (The Incredibles, Dreamcatcher) makes the entire endeavor work because he believes in the chipmunks. Lee’s primary costars — who never showed up on the set and only became anything approaching “real” via computer wizardry in the postproduction stage — gave him nothing to work with, but that doesn’t faze him. He accepts the boys as real, and so do we.

The little denial they face as sentient, intelligent creatures who just happen to be chipmunks is, in fact, part of what makes Alvin work so well. Dave harnesses their childlike exuberance and musical talents to write a song for them… that “Christmas Don’t Be Late” tune we all know so well (just pretend it’s new). And they’re off as a pop-culture phenomenon, and lucky enough to have Dave on their side in the urban jungle of Los Angeles — he looks out for them in the dog-eat-rodent world of corporate music they find themselves up to their little shoulders in. David Cross (I’m Not There, School for Scoundrels) is a sublime riot as the unctuous record-label exec who becomes the villain of the piece — Cross, too, believes in the little critters, if in a rather more malevolent way.

Still, satire on packaged pop culture takes a back seat to family melo-comedy, as Lee learns to love the little monsters as his own flesh and fur. That’s weird, but the site of Theordore curled into Dave’s neck to sleep, seeking comfort because he had a nightmare, is cute in the extreme. The boys turn out to be less helpful to Dave than he is to them: their attempts to get him back together with his ex-girlfriend (Cameron Richardson: Supercross: The Movie) are pretty disastrous, both within the story and without. We could have done without the romantic subplot, in fact, which feels precisely like the padding-out it is.

Still, by limiting itself to precisely one fart joke and precisely one poop joke, Alvin and the Chipmunks is positively high-brow in today’s kiddie-flick environment. (Even the romantic stuff doesn’t get anywhere near the icky-squishy stuff some so-called children’s movies do these days.) It all could have been much, much worse.

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MPAA: rated PG for some mild rude humor and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Chris

    So apparently I shouldnt invest any time watching Knocked Up or Superbad but I should go see a remake thats sure to be as deep as Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties? 26% Fresh Rating is so much better than 94%

  • MaryAnn

    If you share my taste in movies, yes. If you believe you should follow the RT consensus, then no, you shouldn’t. I would have thought that was obvious.

    Who said this was “deep”?

  • Glad to read it isn’t as bad as it looks. The fact that they put the scatological humor in the *trailer* really made me worry for Jason Lee’s career….

  • Brett

    As a kid, I LOVED “The Chipmunk Adventure.”


    Not sure if I care enough about this to go see it, though.

  • MaryAnn

    The trailer makes it look MUCH dumber than it actually is. So I imagine all the folks who actually like stupid comedies will be upset that there isn’t more of it.

  • I remember seeing a poster, and wondering what the universe was smoking when it cooked this one up. Then I saw the trailer, and found myself thinking, you know what? This isn’t going to be the most horrific thing of December. It’s nice when things improve like that.

    Not that I’m going to *see* the bloody thing, but it’s nice to know it’s not terrible.

  • MaryAnn

    The most horrific thing of December is The Perfect Holiday.

  • Pedro

    as a Chipmunk fan, i was horrified when i saw the CG chipmunks looking like the movie garfield (i.e. horrible). i think they’d have made a better job if they had animated the chipmunks against a live background.

    is this worth DVD-ripping, maryann? i’m thinking of getting it along with tropa de elite, the brazilian movie.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, just buy the DVD, if you want to see it. Or rent it.

  • MBI

    Weirdly, I pretty much agree with you down the line on this one. It’s not exactly “Ratatouille” but I’m protective of it just the same, especially after such abominations as “Garfield,” “Scooby-Doo” and “Underdog.” And its surprise financial success has me of two minds on this one — on one hand, I’m glad that people are bringing their kids to at least passable entertainment, but on the other, I’m appalled that they took their kids to it after one of the most repulsive marketing campaigns in recent memory.

    And one thing I particularly liked about it was how accurate it was about the horrors of the kiddie pop industry. Child singers from Frankie Lymon on down through Hannah Montana have been pushed through relentless touring schedules past the point of exhaustion, plied with drugs to keep them going, forced to lipsynch, and kept in little animal cages.

  • MaineRoad

    This is a great example of why I read you. You totally nailed it. I went to see this with my kids, and literally brought a flask thinking I’d never make it through the film even remorely sober. Turn out, it’s not half bad; and, as you note, it’s practically Brideshead Revisited compared to most “family” fare these days.

  • It wasn’t all that great.

    And the fact that only its one fart joke and one poop joke makes it seem “positively highbrow” to MaryAnn compared to most non-Disney family fare seems something more than a little scary about the future of G-rated films.

    To put it another way, the Marx Brothers–even in their pre-code days–got along just fine without fart jokes. So did Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello and other comedians of an earlier era. So the fact that they’re virtually standard equipment now for brain-dead comedy writers doesn’t exactly make one optimistic about the future of American comedy.

    But,hey, they’re not exactly writing this for the likes of me anyway.

    And it’s nice of Jason Lee to keep sounding like the title character of “My Name Is Earl” even though he’s supposedly playing a different character. I guess that’s why they pay those TV actors the big bucks.;-)

  • That’s supposed to be “says something more than a little scary”, not “seems.”

    Silly fingers…

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not great, and yes, it’s scary what kids films have become, and no, I am not optimistic about the future of American comedy, either.

    But the little rats are kinda cute. Sorry.

  • Aw, man. This was supposed to be so brain-meltingly bad that it would set the standard by which I judge the “is that actor I love late on his rent, or what?” genre. Oh, Hollywood. You’re so out of whack you even ruin the bad movies.

  • MaryAnn

    I know. Bizarre, ain’t it?

  • Pedro

    i finally got to watch it last night. one of the best movies i saw of late.

    in my screening, the joke that got the biggest – and joint – laugh was the one where one of the chipmunks jumps onto dave’s face, then farts on his face and whacks him on the head. i actually preferred the bit right afterwards where he fools the chips pretending he’s going to leave and suddenly popping back in – which i laughed all alone at.

    other unforgettable movie moments – alvin bathing in the dishwasher, “theodore just sucked up Alvin”, the chipmunks doing funkytown and THAT cry of “AAAAALLLLLVVVVVIIINNNN!!!”

    not half as bad as i expected it to be – which was pretty dreadful, judging by the trailer – although i think they tried too hard to make David Cross a villain – his behavior towards the end doesn’t match with him bringing the “kids” gifts for christmas.

    other than that, i think eventually it just turns into a family comedy – but one that can really be enjoyed by THE WHOLE FAMILY – kids and adults laughed at entirely different jokes during the screening i was in, but the movie DID cater to both (for example, the songs are a tad obscure for kids to recognize – funkytown?)

    but a pretty damn good little movie, IMHO.

    by the way, MaryAnn, didn’t you feel the squirrels were “humans in chipmunk costumes”? the movie tries hard to avoid that, but Alvin playing arcade videogames…? hmmm…

  • MaryAnn

    The chipmunks do lots of things that only humans do, but there was something nicely chipmunky about the way they did them.

  • pedro

    the movie, the cartoon and the group itself is called ALVIN and the chipmunks, but it’s actually simon who is the lead singer for them. the others just do vocal harmonies. simon sings lead on “you had a bad day”, then again on “funkytown”, and on “witch doctor” he splits them with theodore. alvin is actually the one that doesn’t really sing much at all, apart from the hula-hoop part in the christmas song. maybe it was his overbearing personality that made him the group’s figurehead?

    also, how could simon know “how many fingers” Dave was holding up? can chipmunks count? (rethorical question – duh!)

    and is jesse mccartney, voice of theodore, the same jesse mccartney i’m thinking of?

  • pedro

    oh, and i just established *the* movie line of 2007/08:

    «theodore just vacuumed up alvin».

  • MaryAnn

    Who is the Jesse McCartney you are thinking of?

  • pedro

    Jesse “son of Paul” McCartney, Daniel Radcliffe lookalike and teen heartthrob extraordinaire.

    Is it him?

  • MaryAnn

    He is a pop star, but he’s not Paul McCartney’s son.

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