“I’m sick of struggling for survival,” declares the sweaterless chipmunk Alvin (voiced by Justin Long). Living in a tree with his older brothers Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney), Alvin imagines a better life – an easier, more gadget-enhanced life – somewhere over the, uh, hedge.
Early in Alvin and the Chipmunks, he gets his chance to look for it when loggers cut down the tree and the chipmunks are transported to the big city. Here they immediately understand how things work, no longer miraculous creatures who talk, but now media-savvy children. This identification allows the movie all manner of social and pop cultural commentary, making it sort of Josie and the Pussycats for the SpongeBob SquarePants set. (Indeed, the loudest reaction by the preview audience came on this cue: when the chipmunks were watching morning cartoons, all the kiddies sang along.)
It’s true that the original TV series Alvin, Simon, and Theodore were quite like smart-ass children, wreaking definitive havoc whenever their “dad” and manager, human Dave (here played by Jason Lee) thought he had a situation under control (the inevitable ringleader inspiring Dave’s famous yell, “Allllllvin!”). But this time all the hijinks are speeded up, as the kids are much more aware of their ingenuity and more able to work it, via home appliances and technologies.
The chipmunks this time offer up an origin story, their arrival on aspiring songwriter Dave’s doorstep occasioned by his rejection at a label run by his supposed friend Ian (David Cross), who advises, “There’s no use writing songs that no one is ever going to sing.” (Dave’s lyrics testify to general depression, to say the least: “My sweet love, if you die tonight, I’ll be on the other side to pull you through the abyss of death.”) Dejected again, Dave heads home with a basket of breakfast pastries he’s stolen from the office, which happens to include the chipmunks as well. Once they pop up from among the muffins and begin singing, Dave believes he has a gimmick beyond his own meager talent and determines to take advantage.
What follows is a familiar story of exploitation and greed, mostly embodied by Ian. The focus on the bad adults making their fortunes off gimmicky kids suggests an object lesson for those who persist in blaming Britney: without moral or emotional guidance, overworked and overpraised, the kids become preening, self-involved monsters.
While Dave plays boldly selfless adult by the film’s end (a model of maturity the movie doesn’t even imagine early on), he is initially as eager to make his fortune off them as anyone else. To get him from point A to B, the film grinds through some bland plotty business. He resists the chipmunks’ desire to call him “dad,” but finds his lyricist’s inspiration in their apparently inherent consumerism. Lying in bed late at night, he mulls over the kids’ holiday wish lists and in particular, Alvin’s cavorting with a makeshift hoola-hoop, and he’s inspired to write “The Christmas Song” (the tune that made the chipmunks famous way back when, in Ross Bagdasarian’s original concept; it’s worth noting that the profitable saga continues, as the film is produced by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.). With that, the group gimmick is born and the suddenly interested “Uncle Ian” takes charge of their careers with a vengeance, eventually shifting the gears of the live show to include headsets, backup dancing girls, and a DJ.
Ian seduces the chipmunks, seemingly offering the easy life Alvin once described. He sets up parties and tour dates, his disregard for the children’s bedtimes marking him as a very bad dad. “Dude,” he smirks when Alvin voices a concern, “You’re a rock star, you’re supposed to be spoiled!” At Uncle Ian’s house, they don’t have to do chores or homework or whatever other tasks Dave might have conjured for them, and instead get to delight in an endless array of latest video games and remote-controlled vehicles. The toy montage is as predictable as you’d guess, with the furry critters banging into walls and crashing through shrubbery; similarly tedious, a magazine cover-music charts montage establishes their popularity. (By the time Ian decides to dose them with designer coffee drinks in order to ensure they can record through the night, the snark-on-clichés line of plotting is pretty much exhausted.)
Dave’s struggles also have to do with being a dad. His ex-girlfriend Claire (Cameron Richardson), whom he still imagines will take him back if only he can be a professional success, broke off with him precisely because he wouldn’t commit to marriage and a family down the road. At first put off by his assertion that he talks to chipmunks, once she meets the boys, she comes to appreciate Dave’s newfound maturity, or at least his willingness to be responsible for his erstwhile charges.
Ian’s efforts to keep Dave separated from Alvin and co. are bound to fail, of course, just as Dave’s efforts to save the kids from a nightmarish life in the industry are bound to make him look redeemed. When Dave achieves such relative maturity, Claire likes him again, ensuring that you know he’s appropriately heterosexual. What she thinks of mothering little furry creatures doesn’t come up.