Alvin and the Chipmunks

Like a lot of people, I did not have high expectations going in for Alvin and the Chipmunks. I had seen that infamous movie poster for this flick — the one that had Alvin, Simon and Theodore dressed like gangsta rappers. I thought to myself this was going to be another travesty, just like what happened to Josie and the Pussycats. That flick took the Pussycats, and basically modernized and ruined them. Their songs weren’t even any good in that movie. I was worried we were in store for more of the same with the Chipmunks.

Well, there’s at least some good news to report: the Chipmunks are still… the Chipmunks. They may be CGI-animated, but they have the same rascally personalities and the same high-pitched helium singing voices. Alvin (voiced by Justin Long) is still Alvin, that irresponsible menace, and Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are still themselves, more or less.

And Dave Seville is still his exasperated self. “ALVIN!!!!” “O-kay!!” So don’t worry, nothing has changed. The Chipmunks have not crossed over to the dark side, thank God. I guess what I am really saying is this movie is not as bad as I thought it would be.

The story is very loosely based on the true story of the Chipmunks rise to fame and fortune. It’s about how struggling songwriter Dave Seville (played by Jason Lee) discovers these three Chipmunks, who snuck into his house by hiding inside a muffin basket. He discovers these animals can sing, and tries to sell the evil record mogul Ian Hawke (David Cross) on their musical talents. Predictably, the Chipmunks clam up on Dave at the worst possible time in true Michigan J. Frog fashion, and they are laughed out of Ian’s office. Making things worse, the Chipmunks wreak havoc on Dave’s home life and get him fired from his job. Hoping to make it up to him, the Chipmunks go back to Ian, sing The Christmas Song, and three stars are born.

The tension in this movie comes from Ian’s attempts to take over the Chipmunks and steal them from Dave Seville, who inadvertently aids Ian’s cause by being his own worst enemy as far as people skills are concerned. It is up to Seville to rescue these three Chipmunks from a miserable life on the road under this evil new manager. That’s what the story is about. Oh yeah, there is also a romantic subplot involving Dave and his ex-girlfriend Claire, played by Cameron Richardson.

Like I say, the Chipmunks stay pretty much true to themselves in this movie. You see them singing The Christmas Song, which was in fact their Billboard Number One hit back in 1958 when the Chipmunks first came on the scene. You see them do Witch Doctor, another one of their big hits. So I had no problem with that aspect of it. If anything, it’s Ian who is trying to commercialize our heroes and turn them into something they aren’t.

The problem is this is all there is to this movie– a standard plot with an evil record producer trying to steal away the Chipmunks and run them into the ground. Who cares?! This is really a very stale storyline, nothing special about it at all.

It seems to me that the filmmakers didn’t put much of an effort into this movie beyond bringing back Alvin, Simon and Theodore and having them sing a couple of their classics. These three made it big in part because they were able to parody the music industry. But this movie doesn’t go far enough as a parody of the industry; it lacks bite. It would really have been something if the screenwriters had gone wild and had the Chipmunks do a takeoff on American Idol or something like that. We could have seen Alvin get insulted by Simon Cowell! Now, that would have been funny. I guess Simon Cowell wanted nothing to do with this movie. Or maybe they didn’t ask.

It doesn’t even work as a Chipmunks biopic. They could have done a true-life mock docudrama version where they could have gone back in time to the Fifties to see how these creatures were discovered, and go from there. They could have done something like what they do on Vh1, where they look back at these artists’ careers! It would have made for a really good movie, an interesting movie. It would have made the Chipmunks, whose high-pitched vocals are definitely an acquired taste, more bearable as characters. Instead, they served up a completely uninspired plot.

As for Jason Lee, who is a lot better on TV in My Name is Earl, it looked like he was sleepwalking through this whole movie. Lee’s performance in Alvin and the Chipmunks surely ranks as one of the most blatant examples of mailing it in that I have ever seen. It looked like he was there for one reason only: to collect a paycheck. Well, he sure took the money and ran, along with everyone else associated with this movie.

What was really sad for me was seeing the closing credits where they paid tribute to Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian Sr. for being “crazy enough” to invent the Chipmunks almost 50 years before, and then showed these album covers for the hits the Chipmunks put out. That just underscores for me what a blown opportunity this movie was. Like I say, I went into this movie worried this flick would be a travesty. Instead, I’m angry that they blew a chance to do something great with these characters. They could have made a really campy, retro, topical type of movie that could have paid tribute to Alvin, Simon and Theodore and their musical heritage. What we got instead was just another Hollywood movie. These three legendary cartoon musical artists deserve better.

Grade: C+

The Upside: The Chipmunks are still the Chipmunks, which is good. And they were quite amusing in this movie. When they are on screen, things keep hopping. It’s when these humans show up that this moviey drags.

The Downside: If you think the Chipmunks vocals are annoying, just wait until you see Ian the record mogul, because he’s worse. The humans in this movie are more cartoonish than the cartoon characters.

On the Side: The Chipmunks sing modernized versions of The Christmas Song and Witch Doctor in this movie, and it may seem hard to believe that these songs were ever capable of being hits. But they were both big hits back in the Fifties. These Chipmunks really did hit Number One on the Billboard charts. I know, it’s hard to believe.

Alvin and the Chipmunks Poster Release Date: December 14, 2007
Rated: PG for some mild rude humor.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Cast: Jason Lee, Justin Long, David Cross, Cameron Richardson
Director: Tim Hill
Screenplay: Jon Vitti (screenplay), Will McRobb (screenplay), Chris Viscardi (screenplay), Ross Bagdasarian (characters)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Official Website: Click Here

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