The one positive thing I can think to say about Tim Hill’s Alvin and the Chipmunks is that it squanders less talent than his previous effort, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties. That film wasted the likes of Bill Murray, Billy Connolly, Bob Hoskins, Tim Curry and Richard E. Grant. This round the players are only Jason Lee, David Cross and Justin Long. I’m not even sure that frittering away the combined worth of that very minor array of B-listers qualifies as a misdemeanor.
But so much for the sweet talk. Everything else about this lazy, sloppy, audience-contemptuous crapfest is pretty dreadful, though perhaps not as dreadful as the spectacle of throngs of humanity flocking to pay out good money to witness this revival of one of the dumbest concepts ever to come down the pike. Let’s face it, the original idea of singing chipmunks ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-banging their way into the public consciousness on novelty records back in the late 1950s was the living embodiment of the kind of lameness endemic of the Eisenhower era. You’d think that in this era of … come to think of it, perhaps Alvin and the Chipmunks perfectly fits the current times, too.
Still, what we have here is the idea that if you record vocals and speed them up the results will sound like what one assumes chipmunks might sound like were they to sing. (My personal belief is that no chipmunk in its right mind could be made to sing “ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang” at gunpoint.) This was hardly high tech 50 years ago when Chipmunks maven Ross Bagdasarian (wisely adopting the public alias of David Seville) came up with the idea. By now, it has—in that venerable Southern phrase—molded and haired-over. I don’t care how much you dress the titular rodents up as ‘munks from the hood, or revamp “Witch Doctor” in faux hip-hoppery—it’s pretty much the same thing. What became a bad novelty-cartoon series on TV in 1961 has now become an even worse movie wherein CGI chipmunks interact with live people. Hooray for progress!
What’s truly strange is that director Hill and his three screenwriters—Jon Vitti (The Simpsons Movie), Will McRobb (Snow Day) and Chris Viscardi (Snow Day)—aren’t even capable of following the limited characterization template of the original. The Bagdasarian roster of rodentia had it that Alvin was the bumptious troublemaker of the trio, bespectacled Simon was the brains, and chubby Theodore was the sweet one. Vestiges of this idea linger around the edges, but all three are now manic, bumptious troublemakers. The small-scale disasters of yore have now become property damage of conspicuous proportions and increased messiness (parents who find their offspring hiding maple-syrup-drenched waffles under the carpet for winter have only themselves to blame)—not to mention the obligatory digestive-tract humor.
Far worse than any of this is the sheer lack of care evidenced by the execution of the whole project. Human stars Jason Lee and David Cross are all too often looking a few inches off the mark as concerns the digitized thespians. Compositions are boring and perfunctory to make the later insertion of CGI chipmunks easier. The storyline—success goes to the chipmunks’ heads thanks to the evil machinations of a record executive (Cross) and the commitment-phobia of their adoptive human (Lee)—is a 30-minute affair padded to three times that length. It will almost certainly try the patience of anyone past kindergarten age.
Lee plays most of the film with a frozen smile that would honor Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928), while Cross merely seems desperate. It ain’t pretty. Distracting one’s self by musing over the crowds of people (mostly pretty girls) in the movie cheering enthusiastically, grooving to chipmunk rock, and pretending to watch characters who were digitally added in later only goes so far. It’s also ultimately dispiriting when you consider that these people actually auditioned (and goodness knows what else) to get these fleeting moments of embarrassing screen time. Oh, the humanity! Rated PG for some mild rude humor.