The persistence of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” as a cultural text is rather baffling. The mischievous singing rodents were created in 1958 for a novelty record, which makes them 57 years old. You’re probably familiar with that record, as it usually gets some air time this season, and features that inimitably high-pitched ear worm chorus, “Please, Christmas, don’t be late.” It’s amazing to think that that song has been tormenting parents for nearly six decades now.
These are some tenacious chipmunks, refusing to be relegated to the pop-culture cast-off bin. The characters have starred in various animated series throughout the years and were yanked into the millennium in 2007 with a film featuring live-action performers along with the chatty chipmunks. It’s been so successful that the fourth installment “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” drops this weekend, against “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” As counter-programming, it’s kind of genius, a kid-friendly flick in case you didn’t score tickets to the new space adventure.
What to say about “Road Chip”? It is a film, it exists, it employs a lot of people – dancers, musicians, background extras, comedians, and character actors, and most everyone seems to be having a lot of fun. There’s a wild and upbeat energy that is admittedly rather infectious. The names that appear in the opening credits are eye-popping: such quality performers as Tony Hale, Uzo Aduba and Retta. And the there are some star-powered voice performances behind the Chipmunks and their female counterparts the Chipettes, too, which is curious, because you’d never know it was Justin Long or Anna Faris performing as Alvin or Jeannette, respectively.
The plot follows the Chipmunks from L.A. to Miami. Their “dad,” Dave (Jason Lee), is getting serious with lady doctor Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), who comes with a nightmare of a teenage son, Miles (Josh Green). Suspecting a proposal, and not wanting to unite their families, the Chipmunks and Miles set off to throw a monkey wrench in the plans. In so doing, they manage to unleash a crowd of animals onto a plane, earning the wrath of air marshal Suggs (Tony Hale), play a honky tonk saloon in Texas, join a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, and finally make it to Miami, where they wreak even more havoc.
Much of the script is organized around getting the Chipmunks to perform covers of Top 40 hits in their peculiar style, and the New Orleans jazz band version of “Uptown Funk” isn’t that bad. Otherwise it’s standard learning-to-love-your-enemy stuff, with lessons about friendship, loyalty and learning to say sorry, packaged in adolescent, fart-forward humor, relying on gender stereotypes and a bizarre acceptance of talking rodents. The comedic bright spot is Tony Hale, who is so fully committed in his role as the power-mad air marshal that he transcends the material and gives a legitimately funny performance.
The film is what it is. It’s juvenile and underdeveloped. The actors are clearly performing to motion-capture placeholders instead of talking chipmunks. There are relentless song breaks and references to “pizza toots,” and even more bafflingly, John Waters shows up, and Alvin references “Pink Flamingos.” But everyone seems to be having a ball, even if the material and the staying power of Alvin and pals doesn’t make sense.
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