Thursday, December 31, 2009

Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakquel: Nuts to 'em!

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009) • View trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.09
Buy DVD: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel • Buy Blu-Ray: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel [Blu-ray]

The law of diminishing returns caught up with the chipmunks.

I call it the Home Alone syndrome, although numerous older examples also exist. A film  generally a comedy  takes the world by storm, so of course the studio rushes a sequel into production. Corporate wonks  who get paid far too much for mistakes of this nature  "analyze" the original picture and conclude that the public was most captivated by the element easiest the quantify and reproduce: the slapstick nonsense.
Although initially delighted to be sent to the school where Alvin and his two
brothers already have become celebrities, gal chipmunks Jeanette, Brittany and
Eleanor eventually are persuaded -- by the villain of this piece -- that their idols
are self-centered jerks. Fortunately, a budding romance between Eleanor and
Theodore evokes a thawing in affairs, just in time for a triumphant musical
climax. Too bad the rest of the film isn't nearly as endearing...

And so the sequel is nothing but slapstick nonsense.

But if you examine Home Alone carefully, you'll notice ample evidence of the film's heart, as young Kevin struggles to cope with having been abandoned, while also attempting to retain some semblance of the Christmas spirit. The pratfall-laden invasion by the burglars doesn't arrive until the very end, and it's actually that much funnier because we've grown to truly care about the little boy they're attacking.

Home Alone 2, in great contrast, skips the character development and goes straight for the stupid stuff. Result: bad sequel.

2007's Alvin and the Chipmunks  no classic to begin with  at least benefited from a script that attempted actual poignance, most of it deriving from the vulnerable Theodore, whose insecurities helped Dave Seville (Jason Lee) find his inner responsible self.

(And yes, I know how silly that previous sentence sounds. Work with me here.)

As a sidebar, we also had Dave's long-stalled efforts to become a successful songwriter, and his goofily endearing attempt to ignite a relationship with the kind-hearted hottie who lived in his adorable apartment complex. These elements complemented and offset the self-centered Alvin's frequent lapses in judgment, not to mention the bad behavior that wreaked havoc within Dave's apartment.

And, most important, we had a villain  music mogul Ian (David Cross)  who represented a genuinely sinister threat: a greedy, manipulative swine who may as well have worn a Snidely Whiplash mustache.


Flash-forward two years, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel has made every mistake possible; it's almost as if somebody maintained a checklist of what went wrong with Home Alone 2 and reproduced it.

The first error involved hiring director Betty Thomas, who seems incapable of making anything but lousy movies. Consider: 28 Days, one of Sandra Bullock's worst efforts; I Spy, one of the worst TV-to-movie translations ever unleashed; and John Tucker Must Die, a flick so unmemorable that it's already (deservedly) no more than a resume entry for some of its more desperate cast members.

Thomas, a former stand-up comic and sketch performer, strip-mined that training when she transitioned from her acting career; as a director, she goes for the broadest possible strokes and orchestrates her films with the sensibilities of somebody who regards The Three Stooges as the highest form of humor.

Thus, Chipmunks 2 opens with an incident that sidelines Jason Lee from most of the movie: a sight gag so clumsily inept that one desires to bolt from the theater then and there. The idiotic physical mayhem continues, with a hospital sequence that would have been old in Laurel and Hardy's day, and then a runaway wheelchair gag that the Stooges would have loved.

Lee subsequently phones in the rest of his fleeting performance  literally  and I must credit his perception: He undoubtedly read the script and wisely opted out to the fullest extent possible.

As a result, the position of "adult in charge" falls to Zachary Levi, as Dave Seville's cousin Toby: a social misfit whose idea of paradise would be a college that allowed him to major in playing computer games. You'd think that would make him a natural buddy to Alvin, Simon and Theodore, but in fact Toby remains neither fish nor fowl: too weak-willed to be the necessary authority figure, but too much a geek to be embraced as a peer by the oh-so-cool Alvin.

Levi possesses considerable charm under better circumstances, as his starring stint on TV's Chuck proves week after week; unfortunately, the script for Chipmunks 2  credited to Jon Vitti, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, although I'm sure the blame can be shared with numerous other unbilled hands  gives him absolutely nothing to do.

Toby remains a complete cipher as a character, and although he's given his own sympathetic woman to worship from afar  a fitful attempt to mimic the Dave-and-his-neighbor subplot from the first film  we get no closure with this narrative bump.

It's as if Thomas and her writers simply lost interest. No surprise, then: So do we.

Despite his confinement to a mostly unseen hospital bed, Dave's edict that Alvin and his brothers attend to their education remains in force; Toby thus drives them to school each day. The film's script actually improves a bit here, as Alvin is seduced by visions of athletic stardom, little realizing that he's merely being duped by the campus bully and his posse.

Dramatic conflict arrives with the introduction of female chipmunks Jeanette, Brittany and Eleanor, who arrive in Tinseltown and seek out Ian (Cross, reprising his role), not realizing that this one-time pop impresario remains deservedly down on his luck after the events in the first film. Sensing the opportunity for a comeback, Ian manipulates his way back into the limelight, having molded these three new talents  now dubbed "The Chipettes" — into a fresh singing sensation.

Everything builds to a sing-off during a contest that comes with a cash prize: enough money to save the imperiled music department at the school attended by the Chipmunks and Chipettes.

Despite the rocky early scenes, the film actually builds minor tension during the third act. A few genuinely cute music sequences help, as do little touches such as the floor-level lockers used by Alvin and his brothers, and Jeanette and her sisters. (One wonders how the school found the funds for such an unusual retrofit.)

On the other hand...

Cross, who remained appropriately smarmy and sinister in the first film, is reduced to a pathetic parody of his character in this one. The actor deserves combat pay for what he puts up with here, and it's telling that his final scene  a level of debased humiliation impressive even by bad movie standards  didn't even elicit laughter from the young viewers in a recent Sacramento preview screening.

Even kids thought Ian had become too stupid to be funny.

On a technical level, though, Chipmunks 2 remains just as impressive as the first film. The CGI technology that brings Alvin and the rest to life is persuasively realistic, and most live-action actors genuinely seem to interact with their diminutive co-stars. The only hiccup occurs when Theodore wanders into the wrong enclosure at the local zoo, where a predatory eagle keeps looking above him, rather than at him. (Thomas apparently needed a better eagle wrangler.)

Sadly, whatever charm briefly emerges from Chipmunks 2 is quashed by the film's more numerous missteps. I rather doubt that creator Ross Bagdasarian's squeaky-voiced music stars will return to the big screen any time soon, and that's probably a good thing.

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