Alvin and the Chipmunks

Movie Information

The Story: A trio of singing chipmunks become wildly popular recording stars and success proves too much. The Lowdown: A thoroughly humdrum revival of an idea that needed cremation, not resuscitation.
Score:

Genre: Quasi-Animated Kiddy Flick
Director: Tim Hill
Starring: Jason Lee, David Cross, Cameron Richardson, Justin Long (voice)
Rated: PG

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

45 thoughts on “Alvin and the Chipmunks

  1. Dionysis

    Groan. Another waste of film. I can hardly wait for the soon-to-be-released film version of the ‘one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater’ from the late 1950s song.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Great. You’ve done it now — some genius has just greenlit the damned thing (“Why didn’t we think of this before?”). “The Little Nash Rambler” cannot be far behind — not to mention Phil Harris’ “The Thing.”

  3. emma

    “limited characterization template of the original…Vestiges of this idea linger around the edges…evil machinations of a record executive…and the commitment-phobia of their adoptive human”

    Admirable that you put so much thought into your reviews, but, you’re reviewing a kids’ movie whose target is the under five years of age crowd. The same crowd that was marketed in the 60’s.

    Try to find your inner child Hanke!

  4. Ken Hanke

    I really doubt that the under five crowd is reading this, so I’m not writing for them. And if you want to find my “inner child,” show him something that’s no so shoddy — like MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM or the wonderful PETER PAN from a couple years ago. I don’t buy into the idea that it’s okay to palm off rubbish on children just because you can get away wih it.

  5. emma

    I don’t buy into the idea that it’s okay to palm off rubbish on children just because you can get away wih it.

    Hanke…I do really enjoy your reviews. And you are right.

    Saturday morning cartoons make my teeth nash for the same reason. The animation is so miserable. No movement, not enough frames per minute,etc.

    Any other childrens’ films you might recommend?

  6. Dionysis

    “don’t buy into the idea that it’s okay to palm off rubbish on children just because you can get away wih it.”

    I certainly agree with you; however, it seems clear from many other crummy movies released in the past few years, and reviewed here, that it is perfectly okay to palm of rubbish on teens and the early 20s demographic, since they seem to lap it up. Not much more is needed than raunchy ‘humor’, lots of skin, silly computer-generated imagery or loud explosions.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Upon reflection, I decided that if ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS did speak to my inner child, I’d send that child to bed without supper.

    As for recommending other children’s films, that’s tricky, because there’s really not that much I can get behind. I have some hopes for THE WATERHORSE, which opens on Christmas day. Off the top of my head, there was NANNY MC PHEE last year and CHARLOTTE’S WEB was surprisingly agreeable. I’m sure there are others, but they aren’t coming to mind.

    And, Dionysis, you’re certainly on target with your comments about teens and the early 20s demographic. I’d never deny that — I have to sit through too much of it. But at least that’s stuff that the target audience is willfully attending and not being taken to out of desperation.

  8. emma

    I am some what concerned that Alvin & the Chipmunks have more comments than anything else this week…curious.

  9. Emma, if you don’t mind a dvd, check out KIRIKOU AND THE SORCERESS, a French cartoon based on African folklore. Unique and absolutely wonderful.

    marc

  10. Ken Hanke

    “I am some what concerned that Alvin & the Chipmunks have more comments than anything else this week…curious.”

    It’s almost a given that bad reviews draw more comment than good ones. That’s kind of unfortunate, but it’s all too true.

  11. Nam Vet

    Of course we could have another film showing “real” art, like “Pink Flamingos”. This smaltzy children’s stuff is so boring, isn’t it Ken? :)

  12. dwadew

    I love your review and wish you a merry Christmas Try to refuse and ignore critics and be yourself bless you

  13. Ken Hanke

    “Of course we could have another film showing “real” art, like “Pink Flamingos”. This smaltzy children’s stuff is so boring, isn’t it Ken?”

    Actually, Mr. Vet, this has a great deal in common with your apparent bete noir of cinema, since ALVIN & THE CHIPMUNKS contains a scene in which one chipmunk pops another chipmunk’s droppings into his mouth. By the bye, ALVIN is shrill and obnoxious, P.S. I LOVE YOU comes nearer being schmaltzy.

    “I love your review and wish you a merry Christmas”

    Thank you and a merry Christmas to you, too.

  14. Nam Vet

    LOL, Jason are you crossing Alvin with Pink Flamingos here? I also wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  15. I have no idea what you are talking about, Nam Vet.

    I think that the premise of Alvin and the Chipmunks going down the rabbit hole and into the dark places that nobody dares to mention has all the makings of a fine movie. To imply that Alvin and the Chipmunks are going to some sort of adult situation and is quite irresponsible.

  16. Ken Hanke

    “To imply that Alvin and the Chipmunks are going to some sort of adult situation and is quite irresponsible.”

    When did that start bothering you?

  17. Ken Hanke

    There’s a Richard Gere joke just waiting to be made, but I’m far too tasteful to do it.

  18. I’ve seen the banana yellow curtains and the banana hammock at your house Hanke, nothing you have is in good taste.

  19. brebro

    I guess somebody did not learn the lessons of
    the disasters that were the live action versions of Rocky and Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle and Underdog. This does not bode well for the Speed Racer movie next year.

  20. emma

    I think the most comments have been made here due the content of this weeks paper.

    How many “Teen Beat” interviews can we possibly endure in leiu of real news.

    Slow news week due to the holidays? Or are we finding our footing without Cecil?

  21. Ken Hanke

    “I guess somebody did not learn the lessons of
    the disasters that were the live action versions of Rocky and Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle and Underdog.”

    The unfortunate difference here is that this thing is actually making money — meaning we can expect more of the same.

    “This does not bode well for the Speed Racer movie next year.”

    Perhaps, but SPEED RACER has the possible advantage of being made by the Wachowskis and not by the guy best known for GARFIELD 2. Now, I’m not saying the Wachowskis are geniuses, but BOUND is a terrifically clever movie and the MATRIX things are slick pop junk, so there’s some small glimmer of hope here.

  22. Ken Hanke

    “This is a weekly thing with Hanke and I.”

    You just blab everything, don’t you?

  23. Ken Hanke

    Oh, those delayed resonses — my comment referred to emma’s hmming over the idea that Jason B. and I do this every week.

  24. Steve

    In your recommendations for good children’s films, I am surprised you didn’t mention some Hayao Miazaki films? The Cat Returns, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away (admittedly not a specific children’s movie, would appeal to all ages, I think), etc.

    I know some of his earlier envorionmental stuff would be too heavy and too long. Admittedly I am a rabid fan, but you have admit these are good movies for kids….

  25. Ken Hanke

    Miyazaki would be a splendid choice, yes. I just didn’t think about his films — merely threw a titles out there that I thought qualified as good children’s films. I’ve never entertained the notion of compiling a list of good films for children. It’s an interesting idea to undertake, but “children” covers such a broad spectrum. By the age of 12, I’d have certainly considered myself was too old for “kiddie movies,” and would have wanted to see the next horror movie. Of course, horror movies when I was 12 were a little different than the current crop.

  26. Adam Renkovish

    It’s fun to watch crap every now and then, but I hear this is unbearable.

  27. Nam Vet

    “It’s fun to watch crap every now and then, but I hear this is unbearable.”

    True. But in this flick at least it is not being eaten, like it was in Pink Flamingos. Of course the later is “art” so it gets a pass. :)

    If “Alvin” is good enough for children, it’s worth watching…after it hits cable.

  28. Ken Hanke

    “But in this flick at least it is not being eaten”

    By the way, in this flick it is indeed at least being popped into a character’s mouth.

  29. It’s was a pretty entertaining movie to watch. I watched it on the plane and it was a good time passer, although I don’t think it was good enough to watch at a movie theater.

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