The fate of Space Chimps is preordained. Opening during the season of WALL•E and on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, Kirk De Micco’s low-buzz cartoon has little hope of making its box-office mark. This is just as well, however, as the film is a mess of missed opportunities, a project that reportedly went through a thrasher of directives and deadlines and came out looking woebegone.
The story opens on Ham III (voiced Andy Samberg), grandson of Ham, the famous first chimp NASA sent into space in 1961. Ham the younger is now barely making ends meet as a circus performer, getting shot from a cannon and crash-landing for the entertainment of easily distracted humans. “Space is in my veins,” exults Ham. Yeah, agrees his wise old chimp attendant/best-and-only-friend, Houston (Carlos Alazraqui), “And between your ears.” (As any viewer paying half-attention will guess, this friend will be the occasion for the line about having “a problem,” but you might still cringe when you hear it.) If this exchange is not exactly brilliant wordplay, it’s useful to keep in mind that talking talking chimps here—at least until we’re not. Whenever the chimps get around humans, they’re reduced to screeching and chirping, in order, I suppose, that the humans might be distinguished from them. This is, apparently, a distinction that needs to be reinforced because in this film’s view, the humans—even the brilliant scientists who oversee space launches—are not smarter or articulate than the chimps.
Even within the logic of cartoon language, it’s a little hard to see how the fact that beings on another planet also speak English, or chimpish, or whatever it is the chimps are speaking when they get there. For indeed chimps do go into space in this helpfully titled movie. Ham is the designated star of the trip, a PR stunt, but the team he’s fronting is actually trained to fly (see also: The Right Stuff). Along with these chimp astronauts, the arrogant Titan (Patrick Warburton) and the lovely Luna (Cheryl Hines), Ham is expected to reveal to humans back home that a probe’s discovery of a previously unknown planet is not a mistake. The fact that the probe lost contact on landing prompts NASA scientists Dr. Poole (Jane Lynch) and Dr. Bob (Patrick Breen) to call for a follow-up capsule-with-chimps (at a cost of $3.7 billion, a point repeated more than once). Though a senator (Stanley Tucci) resists the mission, he’s convinced by arguments concerning his reelection campaign, a plot point that indicates that even G-rated movies have now officially made politicians the easy target that Nazis and lawyers used to be.
After some forgettable training and piloting sequences, the chimps arrive on the faraway surface. The planet (which is about as bland a place as you might imagine; as Ham puts it, “We’ve landed in Barstow”) is populated by a mix of brightly colored unidentifiably roly-poly bipeds with big eyes, reptilian skin, and caved-in noses. The enterprising Zartog (Jeff Daniels) is especially jazzed by the discovery of the probe: he clambers onto it, starts pushing buttons, and suddenly finds himself ruling the world, by subduing challengers to his bossiness (the planet is equipped with a volcano full of something molten that instantly freezes bodies into statues: Lord Zartog makes liberal use of this substance to silence wayward subjects).
The chimps have a small window before the capsule automatically returns to earth, but they are also troubled by what they see as a moral situation. That is, unlike the humans who are shooting debris into space willy-nilly, they worry about what Star Trek used to call the Prime Directive: meddling in the business of developing worlds. The probe constitutes such meddling, even as Zartog is putting it to uses never conceived by its makers.
It’s not a terrible dilemma for kid viewers to consider (and not unrelated to the concept of too much trash that is made so vivid in WALL•E). But Space Chimps’ appeal is also limited by its less than compelling animation and scattershot plot. If their adventures on the new planet are predictably episodic, the aliens who harangue or help the chimps meet are startlingly insipid (consider that they must pass through the Valley of Very Bad Things). They make a new friend called Kilowatt (Kristin Chenoweth), an undulating bulb-shape on teeny feet who lights up and squeaks when she’s afraid, and pause to dance with little colored balls who shape themselves into an alternate version of Ham. Why, we’ll never know.
Lacking forward motion, Space Chimps turns itself in circles. Chimp scenes cut to Zartog scenes, which cut to scenes on earth, where the scientists twiddle their thumbs while hoping their very expensive machines will somehow reinitiate communications. This leads them to another non-surprise: they never see the moral situation the chimps do.