Arguably the most irritating novelty act in record history gets a CGI-updating in “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and the result is pretty annoying itself, though it will probably appeal to the younger set. In the style of the Garfield pictures (and directed by the same fellow who did “Garfield 2”), this one sets the late Ross Bagdasarian’s critters—a rodent trio whose squeaky, high-pitched voices were fashioned by increasing the speed of recorded vocals against the music they sing—in a live-action world, and technically it’s a pretty proficient job. But even the half-hour format of the sixties (and eighties) animated TV series stretched the concept past its natural limit, and a feature represents overkill on a grand scale. Chip ’n Dale length—or a single cut on an old LP—would be much more appropriate.
That said, Tim Hill’s effort is probably about the best one could have expected under the circumstances; at least the director keeps things moving, just as he did with “A Tale of Two Kitties.” As for the plot, it’s a kind of origins episode reintroducing the boys—troublemaker Alvin (Justin Long), cerebral Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and plump klutz Theodore (Jesse McCartney)—to a presumably new audience of kiddies. They’re brought to the city along with their tree, which has been cut down to serve for the Christmas season in the lobby of the building where record producer Ian (David Cross) has his offices. And from there they go home surreptitiously with Ian’s old buddy Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a failed songwriter, surprising the hapless fellow not only with their disruptive presence but the fact that they can talk—and, more importantly, sing. He writes a Christmas song for them that becomes a smash hit (though its repeated reference to hula hoops seem rather odd in a story that’s set in the present instead of the period when it was actually written).
The obligatory plot complication arises when Ian, smelling superstardom possibilities, persuades the boys to leave disciplinarian Dave’s house and move into his mansion, where they’re allowed to run amuck so long as they produce chart-toppers and sold-out concerts. Of course Dave misses them and tries to save them from Ian’s overly demanding schedule, while they discover that he’s really the one who can provide a truly loving family environment by being a dad to the childlike critters. There’s also a romantic interest on hand for Dave—a neighbor named Claire (Cameron Richardson)—but that aspect of the script is undernourished, to say the least.
Obviously there’s not much narrative imagination on display here. But there is reasonably good CGI work, and the songs of course—those from the old days being most notable, though some are twisted into inapt contemporary modes (“White Witch Doctor,” for example, is done as raucous rap, which at least has the virtue of concealing the lyrics, which may violate some PC code)—for those who can put up with the penetrating sound of the chipmunks’ voices for a hundred minutes. Lee and Cross certainly fling themselves into the human roles—and it can’t ever be easy to act against critters added later by the special effects team—but in both cases a little less manic energy might have been welcome. And it’s notable that with the exception of one poop joke and a single fart gag, the movie avoids the potty humor that afflicts many kiddie flicks nowadays.
Movies based on old TV shows that represent nostalgia trips for boomers looking for a matinee they can enjoy with their children and grandchildren can be painful. “Alvin and the Chipmunks” doesn’t totally reek the way most of them do, and the kids will probably eat it up. But it’s really no better than Hill’s previous effort along similar lines.