Producers: Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman Director: Akiva Schaffer Screenplay: Dan Gregor and Doug Mand Cast: Andy Samberg, John Mulaney, KiKi Layne, Will Arnett, Eric Bana, Flula Borg, Dennis Haysbert, Keegan-Michael Key, Tress MacNeille, Tim Robinson, Seth Rogen and J.K. Simmons Distributor: Disney+
Tom and Jerry might have collected several Oscars while starring in more than a hundred and fifty cartoons, while Chip ‘n Dale managed only twenty-something shorts and a short-running TV series, but when it comes to a mixed live-action and animated feature, the chipmunk duo has it all over the famous cat and mouse. 2021’s “Tom & Jerry” was a bust; “Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers” is a surprisingly engaging oddity among recent outings resurrecting vintage “stars” of animation, especially when one compares it not just to “Tom & Jerry” but the Muppets raunchy “mystery” comedy, “The Happytime Murders.” It will probably appeal more to adults than children, however.
And the adults better have a strong tolerance of snarkiness. The targets of “Chip ‘N Dale” include Hollywood as a business, sugary reunion stories, dumb TV detective shows, and most especially the very process (or more accurately processes) of animation itself. It’s filled with snidely self-referential jokes and spoofs of cinematic clichés that are strung up on a plot that’s pure formula—but formula skewered to match its attitude. Some will find the result more nasty than funny. For others of us, it’s a pleasant change from the blandness of most of today’s uninspired “family” entertainment, though whether it really falls comfortably into that category is open to debate.
A prologue takes the chipmunks (John Mulaney voices Chip and Andy Samberg Dale) back to the eighties. They met and became best friends in grade school, developing a comic act that took them to Hollywood, where they’re discovered and star in the “Rescue Rangers” show, which ran on the Disney Channel in 1989-1990 before moving to syndication. (Their earlier shorts are blithely ignored.) When Dale, feeling unappreciated, chose to do a pilot for another series—one that didn’t go to series—“Rangers” was cancelled and the once-famous duo haven’t spoken since.
Now Chip’s an insurance salesman, and Dale, desperate to reclaim his old glory, got CGI surgery, turning him into 3D animation while Chip remains traditionally 2D. He’s a regular at fan conventions where he hawks merchandise to nostalgia buffs alongside other has-been or never-was sellers. (One of the best extended cameos is by the seller with the table new to his–“Ugly Sonic,” the redesigned hedgehog whose look (and human teeth, emphasized here) so disgusted fans that it was frantically fixed for the final 2020 film, which became a major hit and spawned the even bigger sequel. Later there’s a brief nod to Tom Hooper’s disastrous “Cats.”)
The two are brought together by a plea for help from their old “Rangers” comrade Monterey Jack (Eric Bana), whose love of stinky cheese has gotten him deeply into debt with a villain called Sweet Pete (Will Arnett). He’s kidnapped, and they join the cops—irascible Gumby-like Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons) and his put-upon human assistant Ellie (KiKi Layne), a great fan of “Rescue Rangers.” Of course they succeed in rescuing Jack, but not without complications that send up the conventions of bad police procedurals.
If that plot were all there was, the movie would be inconsequential, though it has cheekily right-on moments, as when Chip complains about old cartoon characters rapping in order to seem hip (and the does so himself later on, and very badly). But it’s the incidentals that make it special. The investigation leads the bickering duo into a scheme that forces washed-up toons into bootleg movies made by Sweet Pete’s shady operation. That gives the makers the opportunity to pilfer Disney’s catalogue of characters to play victims and incidental figures (inevitably, Roger Rabbit is among them), and to think up grotesquely perverse titles for Pete’s bootleg pictures. And Disney isn’t the only source of material for spoofing: there’s a quick reference to a team-up of E.T. and Batman.
Much of the fun of “Chip ‘N Dale” lies in spotting and enjoying all those allusions, which are so numerous that it might take multiple viewings to catch them all. But one can also appreciate the snide commentary on animation styles, with a particular target the early motion-capture animation of films like “The Polar Express” (2004), with its ungainly character movements and, in particular, the “dead eyes” of its human figures. A Viking voiced by Seth Rogen who’s one of Pete’s chief enforcers is the primary object of ridicule.
The technical side here is just fine, with the Disney animation team having a field day integrating their clever work with the live-action elements. Steve Saklad’s production design and Larry Fong’s cinematography blend well with the CGI imagery, and director Akiva Schaffer and editor Brian Olds do a nice job of juggling zippy action sequences with more relaxed conversational ones, all to a genial score by Brian Tyler. The voice work is good throughout, with Simmons adding his customary over-the-top energy to Captain Putty, and while the live-action performers seem somewhat constrained by the format (Layne’s interactions with the toons comes across as tentative), they get by.
There is one aspect of the movie that might cause some disquiet among those with a knowledge of Disney history. When an older, much altered Peter Pan is introduced, he complains about how he was used until he’d gotten too old and then was tossed out. Bobby Driscoll, who voiced Peter in the 1953 feature and later died an impoverished drug addict, once said precisely the same thing about himself. If that’s intended as an in-joke, it’s an extremely sour one.
But if so, it’s a rare miscalculation. The amount of snarkiness in the movie is astronomical, but it’s mostly of an enjoyable goofy variety, and will appeal especially to devotees of animation in all its forms.