The glass-half-full take on “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. The glass-half-empty take is that it’s still not very good. The kids will surely be entertained, and the movie has a surprisingly wholesome message, but the adults will be smacking their foreheads over the way that the movie all but ignores reality, and for no real reason.
The movie stars Jason Lee as Dave Seville, an advertising executive who moonlights as a songwriter. Dave’s college friend and Jett Records president Ian (David Cross) rejects his latest song and tells him to give up the dream, but Dave’s luck changes when three talking chipmunks use the basket Dave stole from Ian’s office as a getaway (their tree became the building lobby’s Christmas tree). When Dave discovers the chipmunks’ incredible ability to sing and dance, Dave agrees to let them stay with him if they will perform his songs. The chipmunks are an instant hit, but Ian sees a golden opportunity to make even more money by increasing the chipmunks’ workload, much to Dave’s disapproval.
For something that is aimed at the kids-entertaining-kids market, the movie actually has a subversive message at its core, shaming any and all stage parents who work kids to death instead of giving them a childhood. This is surely the work of Jon Vitti, a “Simpsons” alumnus who is credited with the “Chipmunks” story. (Two other writers were credited along with Vitti for writing the screenplay, but ten bucks says at least a dozen people had their mitts on it at one point or another.) Pity, then, that Vitti didn’t recruit a couple more “Simpsons” scribes to hammer out the story’s obvious problems. We’ll grant them that Alvin, Simon and Theodore can sing and dance, but how is that they were able to learn the history of pop culture – the movie opens with them singing Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” – while living in a tree in the forest? (Not to mention chipmunks live in burrows, not trees.) When Ian tells Dave to quit making his music, his response is to throw his equipment out into his front yard. Not sell it, not keep it for his own enjoyment. He throws it outside. Only in movies do people behave so foolishly.
In spite of all this, the movie is hard to resist when it’s clicking, like the scene where the chipmunks perform a tricked-out version of “Witch Doctor” at a record release party. The casting was crucial to the movie’s relative success as well, especially Cross as the opportunistic Ian. He plays the role with just the right blend of charm and passive-aggressive menace, making Ian a more likable villain than these movies usually contain. (He also gets the movie’s biggest laugh in a ‘wink wink’ kind of way.) Lee is a rather good straight man, but if he’s smart, he stays away from family comedy after the one-two rabbit punch of this and “Underdog.” Jane Lynch, however, is tragically underused, appearing in only one scene but making the most of it. Cameron Richardson, who plays Dave’s love interest Claire, exhibits no discernable personality.
One wonders how much better “Alvin and the Chipmunks” would have turned out if Brad Bird had been in charge. You just know that he would have come up with some reasonable explanation for why these forest creatures were so knowledgeable about pop songs and slang (one day in front of Dave’s TV would have done the trick), and he sure as hell wouldn’t have Dave throwing his expensive musical equipment out in his front yard. He probably wouldn’t have stooped to the bathroom jokes either, but thankfully those are kept to a minimum here as well. As Hollywood-out-of-ideas projects go, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not a great one, but it could have been much, much worse, which makes the end result a victory, albeit a hollow one.(2.5 / 5)
This originally ran December 14, 2007 on Bullz-Eye.com.