Kids have always delighted in live-action chimpanzees—though there were always a few of us who found the critters annoying and secretly hoped that Tarzan’s Cheeta would serve as Bambi to an elephant’s Godzilla—so in these days of cheesy computer-animated flicks, it was probably inevitable that one like this would show up. “Space Chimps” isn’t the worst of the lot, but coming from the team that brought you “Happily N’Ever After,” it hardly approaches the Pixar standard. It’s the sort of Saturday morning-grade fare that young children may enjoy but anybody older than eight will find bland and utterly forgettable.
Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg voices Ham III, the grandson of the first chimp to go into space back in the 1950s. He’s the kind of wiseacre who’s typically the hero in these pictures—the self-centered, wisecracking rebel who will prove his mettle in the end. Obsessed with flight, he enjoys taking chances as the guy shot out of a cannon in a seedy circus. But he’s reluctantly plucked from that job by the government to join the simian crew of a rocket that’s being shot into a wormhole that will take them to a planet far, far away, where a rover from an earlier mission had accidentally landed. His two crewmates will be Titan (Patrick Warburton), the brawny but obtuse chief, and Luna (Cheryl Hynes), the obvious romantic interest.
Unfortunately, the rover has been commandeered by one of the local tribe of Dr. Seuss-like creatures, a meanie named Zartog (Jeff Daniels), who’s used the device to make himself despot of his “people.” It’s up to our intrepid chimponauts to liberate the populace from his tyranny and then cobble together a ship to get them home—with the thrust provided by a convenient volcano. Their success not only saves the space program but proves to the humans below that the simians are a lot smarter than they ever gave them credit for—smarter than they are themselves, in fact.
The message “Space Chimps” is meant to convey to kids is the one so often broadcast in these movies—you can be anything you want to be, just be true to yourself and give your all. It may be absolute malarkey, but it’s a soothing exercise in self-esteem. It must be said, though, that the picture doesn’t put it across with much flair. The animation is far from topnotch, with jerky movement and a general lack of background detail, and with the exception of Titan—to whom Warburton gives his usual bombast (and a few good lines), the lead characters aren’t terribly ingratiating. Sandberg’s Ham is, to tell the truth, a particular irritant, and Daniels doesn’t make much of an impression as the villainous Zartog. Even worse are the humans back on earth—a trio of tediously nerdy scientists and a nasty senator whom Stanley Tucci voices with a total lack of distinction.
Nor does the script bring much in the way of imagination. It mostly just plods along predictably, with only an occasional semi-witty remark to liven things up. The one bright spot, literally and figuratively, is a teeny big-headed alien the chimps encounter called Kilowatt (Kristin Chenoweth), whose noggin has the habit of lighting up when she’s nervous—as she often is. Unhappily, she has a tendency to scream operatically, too, which can be very hard on the ears. But the kiddies will find her adorable.
There’s nothing terrible wrong with “Space Chimps,” but nothing particularly right with it either. It’s just characteristic of the mediocre middle-ground that so many entries in the glut of animated family fare fall into nowadays. And with “Wall•E” and “Kung Fu Panda” out there, it can be nothing but a distant also-ran.