I don’t know how it happened, but at some point the powers that be in Hollywood thought it would be better if the beloved toons from our childhood were modernized with CGI technology and targeted, not at those who fell in love with them all those years ago, but the kids of today. It goes without saying that contemporary family entertainment and its humor are…different than they used to be. And yet, the powers that be try to shoehorn old properties into modern sensibilities.
Enter Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a film that could have gone the direction of so many others like it (reboots for Alvin and the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, Tom and Jerry), but it’s built differently. Written by How I Met Your Mother vets Dan Gregor and Doug Mand and directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer, the project doubled down on its self-aware comedy by casting Andy Samberg and John Mulaney as the two chipmunked leads.
A mainstay in Disney’s 80s/90s Saturday morning cartoon lineup and later syndication, Chip ’n Dale Rescue Rangers starred the anthropomorphic chipmunks as they solved crimes as detectives with their animal friends. The 2022 movie follows that up by taking aggressive notes from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where humans and toons coexist and the cartoon characters who star in the shows go home to their wives, kids, what have you.
But where Roger Rabbit uses its premise as subtext about prejudice and the class system, Chip ’n Dale prefers to hover above the surface. Unfortunately, the film is actuated more by modern comedic cues than it is by a curious exploration of this incredibly nuanced universe.
The film is set in a world that exaggerates our obsessions with reboots and sequels – except, strangely, it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration at all (E.T. and Batman star in a movie together and there’s even a billboard for Fast & Furious Babies). Samberg as Dale narrates a brief origins story about how he met Chip (Mulaney) when they once bonded as the only chipmunks in school. They later starred in their Saturday morning cartoon, which was canceled after Dale decided to go off and do his own James Bond knock-off, Double-O-Dale.
We catch up with Dale 30 years later, doing the fan convention circuit with other has-been toons, such as Tigra and Ugly Sonic the Hedgehog (the original version for the 2020 film that was scrapped after negative fan reaction). Curiously, Roger Rabbit is only shown briefly during a scene that takes place in the late ‘80s, his fate in present-day unaccounted for.
Dale has undergone a CGI makeover, making him look like characters from all those below-par remakes I mentioned earlier. Still at odds with one another, Dale and Chip, who still looks like a hand-drawn cartoon, reunite after being informed that their former costar, Monterey Jack, is missing. Turns out, there’s someone out there kidnapping toons and altering their appearances to sell them to bootleggers overseas to make cheap imitations. The premise here is promising, which is why most of us will be inclined to like this movie, despite itself.
Live-action reboots of popular cartoons of our past have typically suffered from childish antics and a lack of humor. And even though the brand of comedy in the new Chip ’n Dale takes a different approach with its metafiction and creative storyboard, the jokes fall flat more often than not. Rather than focusing on the actual quality and relevance of the jokes, writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, whose script has apparently been punched-up into oblivion, seem more interested in having fun with this unique premise, which is why it’s difficult to completely dislike this film. And there are some highlights, such as a freestyle rap about eating whales and a nod to the uncanny valley that doesn’t get played up nearly enough.
It’s not that the jokes are stale, per se, but that they just produce more nose-laughs than actual chortles. While part of that unfunniness comes from the outright atrocious voice acting by Mulaney, the main problem is the writers’ inability to find relevance with its comedy as it pertains to the plot itself. Chip ’n Dale takes the Family Guy approach of firing off non-sequiturs at will. On one hand, this film is the most incredible display of nostalgic references and Easter eggs we’ve ever seen in one picture, but on the other hand, it barely knows how to incorporate any of them into a narrative.
It goes for the quick references of Roger Rabbit, but in the 1988 classic, everything feels cohesive and significant; iconic moments were constructed featuring legendary characters like Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny. Here, they’re all quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes about Garfield and Flounder. There’s no uniformity or reverence. Meanwhile, Ugly Sonic gets a whole arc.
No one will accuse Chip ’n Dale of not having fun with its concept. But where the movie falters is in its attempt to target itself at both kids and adults. The pop culture references will only be understood by nostalgic 30-to-40-somethings and its sardonic brand of humor implies that it’s largely aimed at fans of the original. However, its inability to take any real risks with that humor implies the studio wanted something different, and its unwillingness to kill any of its darlings lets us know that the inspiration ended with the logline and evolved into a self-indulgent deluge of memes. The Roger Rabbit influence is obvious, but Robert Zemeckis’ main goal with his 1988 picture was to make a great movie, never really concerned with who it was for.
Alas, Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a movie that sounds much better on paper – especially when you find out who the villain is. It has all the self-awareness of similar projects that came before it: Wreck-It Ralph and its sequel, 21 Jump Street, the 2011 Muppets. But where those films had a certain weight underneath them, Chip ’n Dale is too flippant to keep us invested once the delight of the premise wears off. And without an audience surrogate like Eddie Valiant, Chip and Dale become products of an unforgivingly zany universe rather than a tragic casualty of it.