I had to psych myself up into seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks."
According to the trailers, it consists of the chipmunks eating each others' feces and singing played-out R&B songs in a register so high it hasn't been heard since the death of the last castrato. But it's a kids' movie. If it turned out that terrible, and I had to slag on it here, that'd be like beating up a puppy. Oh sure, I might have fun doing it, but that's not really the kind of thing you want to be seen doing in public.
Speaking of--me, a guy in my 20s, going to see this thing alone? That doesn't look right, either. Well, what can you do. Going to children's movies by yourself is exactly like life, I guess: you're born, the girl behind the counter sells you a ticket but thinks you're a chump, some kid's parents give you the evil eye when you sit down, and then you get screeched at by animated rodents for 92 minutes.
After their tree's cut down and propped up as an office Christmas tree, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore smuggle themselves out of the building with an unwitting Jason Lee, a struggling songwriter whose work has just been rejected by record exec David Cross.
The chipmunks try to hide in Lee's house, but it isn't long until their trouble- and mess-making catches Lee's attention. Rather than slaughtering them (man's natural reaction to harmless but obnoxious animals), he kicks them outside, but brings them back in when he discovers they not only talk, they sing, too.
And so begins their musical partnership. In a long montage, the chipmunks rocket to stardom. They pull in so much bank Cross starts to think of the ways they can sell out. But Lee's a musician first and foremost, and when he says no, they need to focus on the songs, Cross plots to stick a wedge between Lee and the chipmunks and make them his own.
Now, we had "The Chipmunks" when I was a kid. I remember Alvin was always something of a prima donna. But did you ever see that episode of "The Simpsons" where the network heads decide "Itchy and Scratchy" are old and boring, so they bring in a triple-cool, shades-wearing dog named Poochie to hip things up and talk in a way that will resonate with the youth of today?
Well, this new Alvin is Poochie. He throws slang around like a corner kid, busts out fresh pop songs, and generally acts like the world's saddest thing: the ideal of a cool kid as written by an adult who isn't. Crazy thing is, Jon Vitti wrote "The Chipmunk's" story and co-wrote its script. Fellow commentary nerds will recognize him as a long-time writer for "The Simpsons"--he actually worked there the season they wrote the Poochie episode! Damn. Just damn. To misquote the prophet Treebeard, a "Simpsons" writer should know better.
Much less grating are Theodore and Simon, who stick pretty close to their classic personalities. They even have a couple funny lines. I'll take a cartoon over some freak-looking CG vermin any day of the week, but they're animated well, too, full of energy and oblivious anarchy that sometimes pays out with a lively scene.
All too rarely, though. More often "The Chipmunks" suffers from an acute lack of personality. Lee acts like he blew his whole paycheck on horse tranquilizers. The story's so old it's like what you'd get if the dudes who wrote the Bible watched a couple hours of VH1. Alvin and too many of their songs are just shadows of what you see on MTV.
You know though, "The Chipmunks" really isn't the cinematic Hindenburg it looked like it was going to be. Low expectations might be working in its favor, but its emotional core was competent and its obvious admiration for the original show keeps it grounded. It's just that when the chipmunks are watching "Spongebob," something that happens two or three times during the movie, you can't help but be reminded how creative and entertaining the good kid's programs can be.