"Alvin and the Chipmunks" first rose to fame with their hit 1958 holiday chestnut, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," but more widely came to prominence in the '80s with a popular daytime cartoon. Seventeen years after going off the air, the franchise receives a belabored jumpstart with this live-action/CGI feature film. In today's twenty-first century world, kids will not be familiar with the brand and will only be interested because it's about cute woodland creatures who talk, sing and dance, while childless adults will only seek it out for the nostalgia value. Neither demographic needs to bother. Like 2004's threadbare "Garfield: The Movie
" and 2006's odious sequel, "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties
," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" clunkily translates to the big-screen with maybe one-third of the charm of its previous incarnations. With the best parts given away in the television ads and trailers, the only things left to see are some overlong song performances and a hypocritical plot that derides against mass-market corporations, product placement and materialism even as the picture itself is an example of all three.
David "Dave" Seville (Jason Lee) is a down-on-his-luck songwriter who has the worst professional day of his life when he is kicked to the curb by music producer Ian Hawke (David Cross), he of hip label Jett Records. Returning home with a basket of bread and three stowaways inside, Dave is at first flabbergasted at the sight of a trio of jabbering chipmunk brotherscharismatic leader Alvin (voiced by Justin Long); the bespectacled and super-smart Simon (voiced by Matthew Gray Gubler), and the hefty, sweet, food-loving Theodore (voiced by Jesse McCartney)and then gets fed up when they turn his house into a tornado of chaos. What he is surprised to discover is their talent for singing, helping to inspire him to write a surefire hit in "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." Suddenly, Ian is interested in Dave's work again, but it comes with a price when the chipmunks, by now very much a beloved fixture of Dave's family, are turned into overnight sensations and swept away on a concert tour that they are too young and not ready for.
Unimaginatively directed by Tim Hill (he also helmed the aforementioned second "Garfield
" movie), "Alvin and the Chipmunks" is tolerable for about a half-hour. The initial setup of Alvin, Simon and Theodore literally jumping into Dave's life, the realization by Dave that they are lovable kids (in the form of rodents) and need a dad, the fictional inception of the famed "The Chipmunk Song"all of these things are pulled off with a certain innocent sweetness. Once the main plot pulls into focus, however, the proceedings become unsavory, tedious and off-putting. The mistreatment of the title characters by manager Ian is thoroughly unpleasantit's no fun at all watching such adorable chipmunks get abusedand the way in which the script by Jon Vitti (2007's "The Simpsons Movie
") and partners Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (2000's "Snow Day
") contrives for them to mistakenly believe Dave no longer wants them is predictable and ugly.
Also lessening the entertainment value are a few overproduced musical numbersone of them, "Witch Doctor," is garish and goes on so long that it stops the pacing in its tracksand out-of-place product placement (is this an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie or an advertisement for "Spongebob Squarepants?"). And, despite the Chipmunks finally coming around and recognizing what is really important by the end, director Tim Hill sends out a negative message to younger audience members by having Alvin and his brothers drop Dave after receiving a practical gift from him for Christmas and being offered a mansion and all the food and toys they want from Ian.
Acting in a film of this kind is next to hopeless for human actors, as the only thing viewers are going to care about is the computer-generated star attractions. Still, it helps to have a well-balanced emotional center, and Jason Lee (himself fresh off doing voice work for 2007's superior "Underdog
") is not up to the task. Lee, who has reinvigorated his career with his work on the television series, "My Name Is Earl," falls into the trap of many grown actors in kid's movies by going over-the-top and animated himself, complete with a lot of arm-waving and screechy line readings. As love interest and neighbor Claire, Cameron Richardson has possibly less to do than even Jennifer Love Hewitt in the "Garfield
" pictures. What is most odd about the cast is the use of Justin Long (2007's "Live Free or Die Hard
"), Matthew Gray Gubler (2006's "RV
") and heartthrob Jesse McCartney (TV's "Summerland") as the voices of Alvin, Simon and Theodore. Since the chipmunks' voices are naturally made to sound like a high-speed record player, these actors are unrecognizable and their recording work superfluous to the end result.
Out of all the possible ideas one could think of when planning out the storyline for "Alvin and the Chipmunks," surely there could have been fresher avenues to explore than the one chosen for their first live-action effort. As endearing as Alvin, Simon and Theodore are, the film they are in is unctuous and kind of desperate. The corruptive plot leaves a stale taste in your mouth, and the supposed feel-good ending does not even bother to mention the world of legal trouble Dave is about to find himself in by breaching their contract at the record label. Granted, this sort of realism probably doesn't have a place in a family movie called "Alvin and the Chipmunks," but, then, neither does Ian's irredeemable exploitation of the chipmunks and the use of lip-synching as a climactic plot point. Children may laugh at the broad humor, but what's lurking underneath the comedy is dark and disheartening.