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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