Film Review: Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

The animated chipmunk singing group creates generic funny-animal antics on a tropical island. After two critically lambasted but huge hits, why make any effort at imagination or originality?

Building a movie premise out of a pun is rarely a good idea—Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch, anyone?—but you can see the logic in moving the animated anthropomorphs of Alvin and the Chipmunks away from civilization for the characters' third movie, in which they get shipwrecked. (Not technically—they get blown off a cruise ship in a paragliding mishap and washed ashore on a tropical volcanic isle; no ships were harmed in the making of this movie.) After two outings in which the three become pop stars (the eponymous 2007 feature) and enroll in school (2009's Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel), it might well be a savvy change-up to place them in a setting where they have to act more like animals.

Not that the Chipmunks—high-spirited Alvin (voice of Justin Long), bespectacled Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler and Alan Tudyk) and chubby Theodore (Jesse McCartney)—and their girl counterparts the Chipettes—vain Brittany (Christina Applegate), bespectacled Jeanette (Anna Faris) and chubby Eleanor (Amy Poehler)—go native or anything; donut-devouring Theodore spits out a meal of bark. Nor do they pull together now that they're without the comforts of home and their adoptive father Dave (Jason Lee): When one of them forages a mango big enough for all of them, the chipmunks, completely out of character, each try greedily to grab the mango for him- or herself. What, and let the others go hungry? Really? After two previous movies and several decades' worth of establishing their family bond and caring for each other, now they're going to go all Chipmunk of the Flies?

It's just one scene, but it's indicative of the lack of care that went into this. Yes, you heard me, multitude of animators, designers, programmers and everyone else who worked on this live-action/CGI tale—because without character consistency and simple story logic, this isn't so much a movie as it is a series of disconnected skits. And that shows no feeling for the material, no affection for the characters, and no concern for any long-term legacy. It also shows little respect for the very young audience, by assuming you can foist onto them antics interchangeable with those of any other generic animated animal. Madagascar wasn't The Lion King, but at least it had very specific personalities acting very specifically in character. Compulsive eating (Theodore) or uptight braininess (Simon)—and formula jokes thereof—aren't personality traits but easy comic tropes without depth. C'mon, you can do better.
But you don't want to, because there's no incentive. The chipmunks' expressive faces are cute as hell, and it's hard to go wrong with a soundtrack that includes such catchy hits as "Born This Way" and "Whip My Hair"—whatever formula the producers hit on has earned the first two films over $435 million in worldwide box-office gross and who knows how much on home media. So why go to the time and trouble of Pixar-like agonizing over the story and characters?

I wish I could say the human actors helped elevate the live-action portion, but the talented Jason Lee was apparently directed to go all arm-waving and eye-popping. And I guess he's the kind of actor who thrives on the back-and-forth give-and-take of dialogue with another actor, because he's floundering whenever he's talking to whatever stood-in for the chipmunks while filming. Neither does comic and single-season "Saturday Night Live" cast-member Jenny Slate do any better with her one-joke character, a UPS delivery person who's been cast away, shall we say, for several years and now talks to sports balls with faces. The kids at whom this movie is aimed weren't even born when Cast Away came out in 2000, and it's not a movie parents would have shown them on video, unless they're into existential despair and attempted suicide by hanging. So if the joke of that one-joke character isn't meant to be a reference, then it's simply an outright steal. You couldn't come up with your own ideas?

At least David Cross, reprising his role as conniving former music executive Ian, nails his every scene with his dry, aggrieved delivery and a Daffy Duck sense of ethical relativity—and doing it dressed throughout as a pelican. Maybe we should have an Ian movie next instead.