"When I was growing up, my favorite Christmas memory was the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas record -- you know what I'm talking about? "Christmas, Christmas time is here. ..." You remember that song? My brother and I had it on LP, and we would play it on the slooooowest speed possible on the record player. So then, it sounded like four normal monotone guys just singing this boring Christmas song and then this demon from the ninth level of traitors and murderers screaming at them ..." -- Patton Oswalt, Feeling Kinda Patton
The enduring popularity (or, at least, the enduring familiarity) of Alvin and the Chipmunks can be explained by either the public's affection for innocent whimsy and charm or a perfectly-executed marketing plan that stretches back over four decades. Originally created in the '60s by songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, The Chipmunks were a fictional trio of singing mammals whose novelty recordings were immediately and strangely popular. In reality, The Chipmunks were a minor feat of engineering -- Bagdasarian would sing at half-speed, and when played back double-speed, his voice would be a full octave higher at normal tempo. It's a fairly cheap trick, and yet it resulted in a band -- or, rather, a brand -- that endured long enough to re-record Cheap Trick, on the 1981 album Chipmunk Punk. Thanks to the work of Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and the entertainment industry's never-ending quest to turn old ideas into new money, The Chipmunks have been featured in music and animation virtually non-stop since their debut. Now, 20th Century Fox Animation has given us a new iteration of the Chipmunk saga, and the result is a surprisingly good-natured kid's film -- which, phrased less delicately, is a nice way of saying that Alvin and the Chipmunks did not make me want to die after I saw it at a 10:00 AM press screening whose audience was seemingly made entirely of screaming babies talking on their cell phones.
Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, a struggling-but-talented songwriter living in L.A.; Dave makes the rent working for an ad agency, but keeps trying to break into the music business. His old college friend Ian (David Cross) is in a senior position at Jett Records, but Ian's not impressed with Dave's work: "Could I take this song to Britney? Could I take it to Justin?" Dave leaves the Jett offices disheartened, slumping through the lobby with only a basket of stolen muffins as consolation ... which is good timing, as three plucky chipmunks whose tree was cut down and brought to Jett's building as a Christmas tree need to make an escape from the bustle and hustle of their new setting. The trio are Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), self-involved and enthusiastic; Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), the brains of the trio; and Theodore (Jesse McCartney), big of heart, slow of wit and wide in the hips. Once at Dave's apartment, the three feast and run riot, eventually revealing themselves to Dave, who has to come to terms with the fact that not only do these chipmunks talk, but that they can sing ... and soon, Alvin and the Chipmunks are Jett Records's hottest new moneymaker.
To any adult viewer, the presence of Lee and Cross in Alvin and the Chipmunks seems confusing; what are an ex-skateboarder who got his break doing potty-talk comedy for Kevin Smith and a brilliantly profane "alternative" comedian doing on-screen with computer-generated rodents? But Lee is older now, and a parent; presumably, he wanted to be in a film he could show his kid. Cross is not a parent; presumably, he wanted a film he could show his accountant. But Lee and Cross throw themselves into their parts; Lee's Dave becomes more and more paternal and protective of the chipmunks, while Ian, seeing dollar signs in his eyes, steals them away and forces them to perform and tour at an exhausting pace. The script (credited to Simpsons veteran John Vitti, as well as kid-animation writers Chris McRobb and Will Vacardi) keeps us focused on the fact that, for all of their precocious wit, the chipmunks are kids; Dave wants to work with them, while Ian wants to run them into the ground.
Alvin and the Chipmunks can't really be seen as a music-business satire; besides, in a global pop-scape where a computer-animated frog can turn a remixed version of "Axel F." into a #1 hit in England and France, what's left to satirize? But as a fairly standard-issue kid-flick full of jokes and lessons, it's okay. The chipmunks will not only find fame but family; Dave will embrace responsibility and let the chipmunks into his heart, as well as shape up enough so that ex-girlfriend Claire (Cameron Richardson) can let him back into her life. Director Tim Hill's resume may be full of computer-animated fur (Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties) and real fake fur (Muppets from Space), but he understands the shape and nature of kid's entertainment -- or, at least, the crowd of kids I saw at Alvin and the Chipmunks were able to endure the plot points between sight gags, while also following the storyline that connected the manic antics.
And that's not to say the animation or the storytelling in Alvin and the Chipmunks is flawless; the animation occasionally looks a little rushed and jerky, which sticks out all the more in relief against how smoothly-crafted the chipmunks are for the majority of the film. And yes, a 'modern' updating of Bagdasarian's original novelty hit "Witch Doctor' now includes DJ scratching; every kid in the audience was transfixed, while every adult averted their gaze, as if to pretend to failing to see something that lame meant it wasn't happening. And there are bodily-function jokes in Alvin and the Chipmunks -- but only two, and if Benjamin Franklin liked a good flatulence joke from time to time, why can't we all? Alvin and the Chipmunks may charm only as a function of diminished expectations -- no one expects a film based on a 46-year-old novelty record to be a triumph of the imagination, and you suspect that the film only came about after much careful number-crunching and profit-prediction on the part of Fox and Bagdasarian -- but even if Alvin and the Chipmunks has one hand reaching for your wallet, at the very least its heart seems to be in the right place.