The ape astronauts of the computer-animated feature Space Chimps talk a lot about pushing the envelope and other right stuff-isms, but the movie itself doesn't push the envelope so much as it does deliver it just fine. It may seem faint praise to call this a well-executed formula movie, but anything that can take the kids-film formula and do it with brains and slick craft deserves positive attention. And as sci-fi monkey movies go, it's way better than Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.
Briskly edited and paced without feeling rushed, this story of three astro-chimps sent through a wormhole to retrieve a valuable unmanned probe also manages to provide a G-rated menace that's properly terrible without being terrifying—the kind of thing a top children's-horror author like R.L. Stine achieves. In this case, the bad guy dips his victims into a silvery liquid that "freezes" them into oversized hood ornaments; from the victims' reactions, it's unpleasant ("So c…c…c…coooold!"), but later they find that if you give ’em a good whack, the outer shell cracks off and they're left little worse for wear. Other menaces include what looks like a Hulk-sized land piranha; big, flying, winged puffer fish that shoot darts; and, most marvelously, the Dark Cloud of Id, which fills you with the need to psychoanalyze your deepest fears and insecurities.
That kind of careful and clever thinking goes a long way toward keeping Space Chimps buoyant. So does the way it respects science without getting all public-service-y about it: Director Kirk DeMicco and his co-writer Robert Moreland make the film's trio of lead scientists (voices of Patrick Breen, Kath Soucie and Omid Abtahi) truly good at what they do while also giving each a mild foible. They're geeky but self-confident—cool geeks.
The story is a typical tale of a hubristic youth forced to take a journey of self-discovery in order to become the monkey he's meant to be. Ham III (voice of Andy Samberg) is a circus hotshot who gets fired from a cannon each show to soar into the sky and crash-land sans parachute. It seems that Ham III’s daredevil penchant is genetic—his grandfather was Ham, the (real-life) first chimp in space. Now a nasty U.S. senator (Stanley Tucci) wants this walking photo-op to accompany the trained astro-chimps Lt. Luna (Cheryl Hines) and Commander Titan (the always-perfect Patrick Warburton) on a retrieval mission too risky for humans. Old-timer Houston (Carlos Alazraqui), the original Ham's chimp buddy, helps watch over the cocky Ham III, and takes computer-genius chimp Comet (Zack Shada) under his wing.
Despite Ham's best efforts at escaping back to showbiz, he winds up on the planet Malgor, where alien mean-ol'-man Zartog (Jeff Daniels) is using the crashed probe—a big Swiss Army knife of a vehicle—to enslave the locals. When Ham III and the no-nonsense Luna are separated from the officious but dedicated Titan, they get help from innocent little alien Kilowatt (Kristin Chenoweth), rescue the commander and, in the process, free the enslaved aliens.
Deadpan jokes about proper government funding for science intermingle with Ham's wisecracks and the other apes' straight-monkey routines. Cute without being saccharine, and snarky without being smarmy, Space Chimps, within its tried-and-true trajectory, delivers its payload.