I’ve always wondered about animators and visual effects artists. When they’re on their game, do they resent it when the writing team doesn’t produce at the same level—the way an NFL defense must secretly hate it when a woeful offense can’t get so much as a single first down to give the D a breather?
I thought about that as I watched the third installment in the live action/CGI “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise, “Chipwrecked”—a great title and great concept, really, when you think about it. Take the chipmunks on a cruise ship and there’s potential for all sorts of comedy. Unfortunately, there ISN’T all sorts of comedy. Like a TV cartoon, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” depends too much on cute characters singing—in this case, too often and with those helium voices that drove my teenage son out of the room. My 10 year old daughter loved it, though. Maybe 10 is the break point, or maybe girls will respond to this better than boys.
I do know one thing: except for a fun reference to “Cast Away” that could have been funnier, there’s not enough here for the whole family—meaning adults. That’s surprising, since the human cast features Jason Lee (“My Name Is Earl”) and David Cross (“Arrested Development”), two gifted comic actors who can work magic if given even half a chance. Put them on a deserted island together and you’d think that there’d be all kinds of comic give and take. Too bad the screenplay from Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (“Kung Fu Panda”) didn’t shoot for an older audience. The kids would still have had those lovable chipmunks—Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Theodore (Jesse McCartney) and Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler)—and the “Chipettes,” but it would have had twice as much substance as it has now. Although I guess two times nothing is still a big fat zero.
If that sounds harsh, it’s the sound of disappointment. I liked the first film and thought, as Dean Winkelspecht did, that it captured the spirit of the David Seville and the Chipmunks 45 rpm that first entertained audiences back in 1958. Who would have thought that a novelty song by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.—who had previously given audiences “Witch Doctor” (Oo-ee-oo-ah-ah!)—would turn into the success story that it’s been? Recording all three voices of the chipmunks and then speeding up playback to get that squeaky sound, then adding his own as David Seville, he created a sensation with “The Chipmunk Song,” which topped the charts. It became a family affair after Bagdasarian died, with his son and wife taking over the voices for more songs and albums, “The Alvin Show” animated series (1961-62), and an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” reboot (1983-87) that introduced the Chipettes (voiced in this film by Amy Poehler, Anna Faris, and Christina Applegate).
The time aboard ship seems squandered, with the chipmunks showing off their dance moves, scampering across buffets and casinos, or going down the water slide. But there are really no funny gags or lines, and the first part of the film feels like no one knew what to do with the chipmunks. It gets rolling a bit more after Alvin disobeys David and tries his hand at hang gliding—but catches a draft of wind that carries him and all the other furry ones out to sea. Meanwhile, David sees them and grabs onto a hang glider to try to rescue them, and he’s joined by Ian. After a little “Survivor” the chipmunks meet up with a shipwrecked woman who has all kinds of balls for friends. Soon one of the Chipettes turns an ankle, one of the chipmunks gets bitten by a spider and experiences a personality change, and it turns out that there’s a treasure on the island. At least one scene will remind viewers of “The Rescuers.”
But there’s something not quite right with the dynamic between the characters this outing. Lee kind of coasts along as an easy-going Seville, with less friction between him and the chipmunks than in the first installment. Maybe part of it is written in: that he’s trying to be less controlling and give the chipmunks more room to make their own mistakes. But it doesn’t make for very interesting “theater.” There’s not much happening between him and Cross, either. In a more extreme version of “Stir Crazy,” Cross ends up wearing a bird costume throughout the film. But his character is more than a little confusing. Ian is a little angry that as their former agent he didn’t spot the chipmunks’ talent, but his current attitude and relationship with David on this adventure is poorly defined. Two comics like this should have been given more to do and better material to work with.
“Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” comes with a boatload of songs, all of them squeaked out by the Chipmunks and/or Chipettes, including a Lady Gaga tune. And girls, more than boys, will appreciate a “dance off” between the Chipettes and three dressed-to-kill clubbers. But when the biggest infusion of interest comes from Simon’s transformation to the more dashing Simone (Alan Tudyk), you know that this film, if it were an athlete, could only be described as an underachiever.
If looks were everything, “Chipwrecked” would be a solid 9 out of 10. The CG work is so good that there are no indistinct edges and no attempt to hide the integrated work into the live action. It’s there, side by side, and apart from the cartoon movement of the chipmunks it looks as natural as can be. Children will appreciate the bright colors and high amount of detail, down to every hair on the chipmunk’s heads or tails (you call it). “Chipwrecked” comes to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode (27 mbps) and is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The audio is pretty solid too, with a lively bass channel and plenty of activity in the rear surround speakers. Sound travels naturally across the field, and the dialogue, though mostly center channel, is nicely prioritized. The only thing is, you’ll need to turn up the volume on this one to be able to understand some of the squeaky voices—Alvin’s, in particular. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional options in English Descriptive 5.1 and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish.
This combo pack comes with a DVD and Digital Copy (hurry, availability expires). Meanwhile, “Going Overboard with the Chipmunks” (7 min.) features the producers Ross Bagdasarian and his wife, Janice Karman, who talk about how this installment was cobbled together from various ideas. And yeah, it felt cobbled together. “Munking Movies in Paradise” (7 min.) gives you some insight into the two filming locations, Vancouver and Hawaii. “Everybody Munk Now” (8 min.) features the choreographers talking abut the CGI dance numbers and dance-off with humans. “”Fox Movie Channel Presents Growing Up Alvin” (10 min.) is a really nice account of the history of the chipmunks, and you find out that two of their children are poised to take over when they retire. It’s the feature I enjoyed the most.
Other features: “Fox Movie Channel Presents In Character with Jason Lee” (5 min.); “Alan Tudyk, Chipmunk Apprentice” (7 min.), a very funny routine with Tudyk talking about preparing for his part; “Vacation,” “Survivor,” and “Bad Romance” music videos; eight deleted scenes (5 min. total); promo featurettes and teaser-trailers; and something that the little girls will eat up: “Munk Music and Dance Machine,” which allows you to play the song selections from the movie (all 16 of them) or to get your own voice going with a sing-along option. And it’s all introduced by “Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up Part 2,” which automatically plays before the menu screen or movie.
My daughter said she liked this installment as much as the first film. “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” will probably be a winner with families that have small children, but older ones may squirm and adults will find themselves wondering how such a promising premise got so quickly beached.