ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS [dir. Tim Hill]
When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.
Jason Lee stars as the post-modern Dave Seville, a hard working adman who longs to be a successful songwriter. Unfortunately, his old buddy, record executive Ian Hawke, thinks his music stinks. When our hapless hero stumbles upon a group of talking chipmunks in his apartment, he immediately thinks he’s gone crazy. After some convincing, the human strikes an accord with the talented critters - he’ll let them stay in his house if they sing his songs. When the rodents express a desire to have their very first Christmas, Seville is inspired. He writes a nutty novelty tune, plays it for Ian, and the rest is history. As the reticulated boy band burns up the charts, their two legged guide tries to patch things up with ex-girlfriend Claire. This distraction allows Ian to swoop in and steal the varmints from under his pal’s nose.
Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less. It is nothing more than an excuse for overpaid computer geeks to render quasi-realistic wildlife - all in service of a crass commercial statement. While it only plays the fart and poop card once each, this is still a juvenile effort helmed by individuals (Jon Vitti - ex-Simpsons, and Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi of Pete and Pete fame) who should really know ‘funny’ better. Substituting stupidity for smarts and silliness for satire, we wind up with the kind of mindless box office babysitter that lets inattentive parents feel safe about dragging their kids to the Cineplex. Had it strived for anything subversive or revisionist, the lack of sell-through support would only be matched by the bellyaching coming from the Bagdasarian camp.
It’s clear that the owners of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore don’t cotton to the modern comic sensibilities. The Chipmunks are never anything more than a vehicle for sloppy slapstick, surreal non-sequitors, and an overdose of pallid pop references. If you think CG critters cracking hip-hop wise is the last word in witty, you’ll adore this dreck. In fact, the script seems stuck in the early phases of the 2000’s, a time when rap and urban slang flooded the commercial concept of culture. It makes the use of the band’s old standards (both “Witch Doctor” and “Christmas” make multiple appearances) and their frequent freaked out cover versions (“Funky Town”? Please!) all the more bizarre.
It would be nice to think that the adults could balance out the saccharine shtick. Unfortunately, neither Jason Lee nor comedian David Cross (as Ian) can deliver. Lee is lost, mostly playing at a pitch right above psychopath. Instead of being frustrated by his new roomies - thereby guaranteeing Seville’s trademark shriek of “ALVIN!!!” - the My Name is Earl star seems to be having a hissy for no apparent reason. Cross is even more clueless, trying to riff on the surreal situation of talking, singing vermin in a plausible post-modern way. It doesn’t work. About the only actor who finds the proper tone is Geena Davis lookalike Cameron Richardson. She’s light and airy, as fluffy in her self-effacing superficiality as the movie is loud and lumbering.
And then there’s the question of marketing. Who is actually aching for a live action Chipmunks movie? It can’t be the Boomers who grew up with the gimmicky act. There is nothing in this adaptation to make them smile. It can’t be the Gen-Xers who made the Saturday morning cartoon series from the ‘80s sail. Again, this film avoids anything remotely resembling the character’s retro past. If it’s aimed at current wee ones, then Hollywood really thinks children are dumb. As long as it’s colorful, corny, and constantly in motion, it should hold the bratlings at bay, right? Wrong. Alvin and the Chipmunks is so lacking in legitimate fun that even the simplest of small fry brains will have a hard time finding a reason to rejoice.
Even the CGI looks second rate. In an attempt to make the trio as ‘true to life’ as possible, a weird combination of approaches has been employed. The bodies are like that of real chipmunks, but the faces have that blank, dead-eyed stare of an attempted anthropomorphizing. Instead of going with something more suggestive, the contradictory combination makes the main characters look unnecessarily busy and blurred. When the action does slow down, Alvin and the boys get away with a lot of cheesy glances. And don’t let the voice talent fool you. Justin Long (Alvin) Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore) might just as well have not shown up for the recording sessions. They do nothing that’s memorable.
In the end, Alvin and the Chipmunks comes across as another nostalgia raiding stab by Tinsel Town directly into the heart of many an individual’s childhood memories. Like the equally unseemly (but much more successful) Underdog from Disney, studios can’t seem to recognize that every old school kid vid character doesn’t need a mid-millennial update. You can make them krump and Emo everything to kingdom come, but these weird wildlife sensations stand as a specific symbol from a specific era. As an old novelty act, they may have some staying power. But it’s clear that Bagdasarian’s babies can’t carry a big screen comedy - not even one aimed at the single digit age demographic.