Monday, December 17, 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks / ** (PG)

Dave: Jason Lee
Ian: David Cross
Claire: Cameron Richardson

With the voice talents of:
Alvin: Justin Long
Simon: Matthew Gray Gubler
Theodore: Jesse McCartney

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tim Hill. Witten by Jon Vitti and Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi, based on characters created by Ross Bagdasarian. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

I will admit up front that I was never a fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I never liked their Christmas song because it was more about the chipmunks than it was about Christmas. (Its actual title is “The Chipmunk Song”—the part about Christmas only appears occasionally in parentheses.) And the lame attempts to turn them into a cartoon franchise left me yearning for more Disney shorts starring Chip and Dale. So it’s no surprise that I am not recommending this movie. But I’m a little surprised it wasn’t any worse than it was. The CGI-animated chipmunks were remarkably charming. But the film itself was not nearly as remarkable as the experience of seeing it in a theater filled with frothing kids.

My son Jack is not shy at telling me which movies he wants to see and pointing out when they show up in our local theater. I spent many weeks trying to shield him from the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” advertising campaign to no avail. Such is the price of breeding a cineaste at such a young age, I guess. I haven’t had the chance yet to make him understand that the sight of a talking chipmunk letting one rip in a man’s face is just not all that amusing. So when he saw—and repeatedly laughed at—that gaseous scene in the ads, he knew that this was a movie he had to see.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the droves of new chipmunk fans this scene had created throughout the entire community (and most likely entire country). Interestingly enough, although the chipmunk toot still produced a rousing response when finally seen in context, Jack claims his favorite part was when Alvin and Theodore got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

So popular was the chipmunk phenomenon amongst the children of our community that by the time it opened last Friday, it was the talk of the school. Jack ended up making his first movie date with Sam, one of his best pals from kindergarten. Sam was also kind enough to offer Jack a ride the theater—a gesture he neglected to pass on to his parents. Ang and I learned this when Jack asked sheepishly at dinner Friday evening if anyone had called for him. Jack doesn’t normally receive all that many phone calls at the age of six. Ang and I figured Sam had forgotten to ask his parents, to whom we are only very slightly acquainted, so we called them to invite Sam along with us. Sam’s folks loved the idea of not having to sit though “Alvin and the Chipmunks” with their son, but his little brother wanted to go too. So we offered to bring Max along and decided to give our younger son Jude his first test run at the cinema as well. Why we didn’t bring the dog along to herd them I couldn’t tell you.

At the theater we discovered half of the kids in Jack’s school had dragged their parents out to this clunker. Misery revels in company. After spending over $50 at the concession stand and coordinating a chain-and-buddy system to keep the kids together and performing a Barnum-&-Bailey—worthy balancing act with the popcorn, drinks and kiddie packs, we finally got the kids in seats and were able to witness all the chaos surrounding us. As the previews dished out the next string of cringe-inducing kids flicks, the chatter started to emerge from the 10-years-and-younger crowd. “I wanna see that.” “That one’s scary.” My favorite moment was when Sam claimed to have seen “Horton Hears a Who” even though it won’t be released until March, and then Jack chimed in, “I saw that one too! It was good.”

All the children surrounding us had similar reactions to everything. I had the impression of being stuck in a pen with bleating lambs. But the audience reaction really started to congeal once the film started. It was almost like watching a film with a festival audience. At film festivals, everyone has deep appreciation for the art of film and is much more willing to react and embrace the visceral experience of movies than during the typical multiplex experience. Kids don’t censor a thing. It was obvious from the start they loved those chipmunks, with “ooos” and “ahhs” synced to their every digital movement. And like I said, Alvin, Simon and Theodore were pretty charming.

It was also obvious that the ‘munks (as they’re referred to in the film) were the main attraction. The theater seemed to fall silent when the human characters were left to their own devices. I don’t think they were judging the contrivances of Dave (Jason Lee, NBC’s “My Name is Earl”) who’s music career was over until those ‘munks inspired him to write a song that certainly could have caught people’s ear in 1952 even though this film takes place in the present day. I’m sure they weren’t frustrated by the idiot plot romance that kept Dave and Claire (Cameron Richardson, TV’s “Point Pleasant”) apart when one moment of explanation would have brought them together. I doubt the juvenile depiction of the music industry through the ‘munks’ manipulative producer Ian (David Cross, HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and Dave”) bothered them. And I know they weren’t shaking their heads over how the talents of Jason Lee, David Cross and Cameron Richardson have—and hopefully one day will again—be used for much better causes. But they definitely weren’t feeling it from the human performers.

Really, this live action version of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” exists only to provide a platform for realistically rendered rodents to speak in high pitched voices, say cute things and perform absurd acts at the expense of their human counterparts. On that level, I suppose it delivers exactly what is expected of it. But if you aren’t under the age of ten, that really isn’t much at all.

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