Imagine you're a filmmaker and you've got this cockamamie story about astronaut chimps that just won't go away. You don't have much money, but the story involves lots of technology and outer space effects. What do you do? You could use your imagination and shoot in darkness with lots of odd angles and perspectives, like Mario Bava's sci-fi masterpiece Planet of the Vampires (1965). But that would raise all kinds of questions about how to present the chimps. You could do a hand-drawn animated cartoon, something like Persepolis, for comparatively little money. But that would expose the fact that you really don't have much of an idea. So you decide to make a big, computer-animated film, make it fast, fill it with annoying jokes and hope no one notices how cheap and unfinished it looks. But what you don't do is open it three weeks after the astonishing WALL-E so that everyone notices the difference.

Space Chimps comes from the folks who brought you the universally despised animated film Happily N'Ever After (2006), and although I didn't see the earlier film, I'm told Space Chimps represents something of an improvement. Regardless, everything here has a kind of mechanical sheen rather than organic textures, and it feels like something closer to Tron than a cartoon about monkeys. Then comes the story: Ham (voiced by Andy Samberg) is the grandson of a famous chimp astronaut, who actually went into space. The younger Ham works at the circus, getting himself shot out of cannons. In the film's opening scene, he rockets toward the moon and reaches out for it, disappointed when gravity's pull inevitably begins dragging him back toward Earth.


Meanwhile, the space program has lost an expensive probe through a wormhole in space. They could send humans after it, but the pressure could kill them, so chimps are the next likely solution (huh?). An evil senator (voiced by Stanley Tucci) wants everything to "look" right, so he recruits Ham to join the mission, thinking the noble bloodline will help. At first Ham inexplicably refuses, merely because screenwriter's school says he has to. But when he finally accepts, it turns out he's a giant screwball, jeopardizing the "real," trained chimp astronauts, Luna (voiced by Cheryl Hines) and Titan (voiced by Patrick Warburton). Together the chimps discover an inhabited planet, where a nasty alien (voiced by Jeff Daniels) has used the first probe to enslave his people. So (yawn) the chimps must save the day and get back home.

Space Chimps moves with that exact same built-in computer-animated comedy timing that all other computer-animated comedies have. Hysteria is coupled with quietness, and punchlines are repeated, in an effort to make them funnier. The notes and beats arrive at exactly the same moments, and there isn't even any joy in their execution, much less their content. Even worse, however, is that the bulk of the comedy is placed in the hands of Andy Samberg, star of "Saturday Night Live" and last year's Hot Rod. He merely re-hashes Ben Stiller's annoying schtick, based on a combination of supreme arrogance, supreme neediness, and a kind of incompetence (none of which is particularly funny), but without the advantage of actually being Ben Stiller (Ham even wears that artfully spiky Ben Stiller hair). At one point, a character tells him to "evolve," and Luna tells him he's "kinda funny, but in an unbelievably annoying way."

Cheryl Hines and Patrick Warburton, on the other hand, are genuinely funny performers but the film deprives them of anything funny to do. Many of the jokes will go right over the heads of the young people this G-rated film is intended for, but the older jokes aren't particularly funny either. In one scene, the chimps play an electronic memory game, pushing buttons and listening for tones. Ham decides to play the "Alex F" theme from Beverly Hills Cop (1984), to which one rocket scientist begins breakdancing. Adults in the crowd may recognize the tune and the dance, but merely bringing it up doesn't comprise a joke. The other prevalent form of humor is an endless stream of puns using the word "chimp" and its synonyms. ("Let's chimp this ride," etc.)

For some reason the film decides that it needs a romantic connection between Ham and Luna, and Ham's idea of romance is merely to badger her and brag to her over and over until she finally succumbs out of sheer weariness. Unfortunately, the filmmakers -- co-writer/director Kirk De Micco (Racing Stripes) and writer Robert Moreland (Happily N'Ever After) -- have used the exact same method to seduce the audience. If you don't mind being bludgeoned and hassled into laughing and enjoying yourself -- or if you thought WALL-E was too dark and thoughtful -- then Space Chimps may be for you.