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The Chipmunks on DVD: Making a Movie and Then Stealing From Several Others

by on April 26, 2008

A half-century of success is nothing to be scoffed at. So to those who look down on the Chipmunks and their career of sped-up covers, keep in mind that they’ve been popular since their 1958 introduction by novelty-song guru Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.

That said, their history is mostly characterized by innocuous Saturday morning fluff, neither offensive nor even remotely substantial. You might say they exemplify the basic elements of average kids’ cartooning: no aspirations to art and no pretense of interest to adults, supplying only the silliness of talking/singing chipmunks and some wish-fulfillment material. In the latter case, it’s of the imagined rock-star lifestyle (echoing the same kind of appeal that Hannah Montana and The Naked Brothers Band probably has for the current generation of kids). Such generic material is usually a kind of blank slate for animators, on which they can show whether they have the talent and resources to make the material amusingly enjoyable or just dull and mind-numbing.

We get a nice show of both effects with two recent Chipmunk DVDs, The Chipmunk Adventure and Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies. In both, the basic Chipmunk concept gets no further development than it could possibly even withstand—which is, to say, very little. But at least, unlike some inexplicable successes, the characters are well-defined enough to be entertaining on their own account. Alvin’s desperate ego, Simon’s book smarts, Theodore’s innocent gluttony, and Dave’s consistent frustration come together in a formula for character interaction that still works well at getting laughs. The Chipettes are less clearly defined, since they basically sport the Chipmunks’ personalities with a tad more reasonability, but they also work well enough in the right situations. (Miss Miller almost comes from another universe with her Magoo-esque brainlessness; she’s entertaining for wholly unique reasons.) Thankfully, these character bits are the main draw of the simplified plot machinations of The Chipmunk Adventure. The film has so little real story to tell that its unhurried pace becomes a real virtue; it is willing to let the personalities provide most of the fun. Alvin’s shameless abuse of a late-night call to Dave in Europe (and its aftermath), Theodore’s continued attempts to sample local cuisine, and Dave calling Miss Miller without either of them saying anything the other can understand are quite amusing scenes.

If anything, the inherent ridiculousness of the plot in The Chipmunk Adventure—the Chipmunks and Chipettes race around the world while unwittingly being used as diamond smugglers—is used to its own advantage. The Furchteins’ criminal operation is given energy and even a little real menace via their Eurotrashy operatics; Claudia vamps her way through the picture so thoroughly that it’s hard to question why she’d think to use anthropomorphized rodents for her scheme. Again, it’s part of the way this film works around the thin Chipmunk premise to make a memorably enjoyable feature. The animation, as has been noted often, is significantly augmented thanks to Bagdasarian Jr.’s hiring of several laid-off Disney talents; look for the incomparable Glen Keane’s work in the Greece section. Even the songs are more enjoyable here. They seem to have made the extra effort to make sure the songs in the film actually sound nice when done Chipmunk-style, from good cover choices to well-done original songs. The Chipmunk Adventure is hardly a perfect film, and it slows down considerably once the Chipettes go on their penguin-charity side trip, but it’s remarkable how well it holds up. Thanks to the stronger workmanship of the film, the Chipmunks and Chipettes in this flick manage to entertain well beyond their target demographic.

This is not the case for Alvin and the Chipmunks Go to the Movies, which just collects three episodes from the 80s/90s series’ eighth season, which just went for popular film parodies. Or, at least, what you’d think would be film parodies. The eighth season did indeed have episodes that were fuller parodies, but this particular DVD release features episodes that are strangely light on the straight-up satire. Maybe that’s because the film choices were much more suburban than usual: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Big, and Back to the Future are what provide the “parody” fuel. What these episodes do, instead, is co-opt the basic ideas of each film then graft them onto the normal Chipmunk scenario without finding anything new in the concept. The result is less interesting than your average Chipmunk story, and way less interesting than any of the gutted films in question.

The problem may best be shown by noting that, in the Shrunk episode, they manage to shrink the adults and then keep the story on the kids/Chipmunks. Oops. Yeah, that’s where the real fun is. The Big episode just takes the core gag of the original film and forgets to use it for laughs, instead giving us special-episode moralizing. For animation nerds, the Future episode is probably most interesting if only for the callbacks to the original 60s toon, The Alvin Show, even bringing us Prof. Clyde Crashcup for the reunion. But that fun fades quickly when not much else is made of the time-travel lunacy, and it just becomes this strange conflict between past and present Alvins for the right to the present. In all of these cases, the Chipmunk character dynamics are made weaker by the half-hearted attempts at mimicking these popular films, and the parodies are weakened by the need for the Chipmunks to still recognizably be the Chipmunks in all scenarios. The songs are also less enjoyable; not everything can withstand RPM speed-ups and still sound good. I commend them for the joke of using Randy Newman’s “Short People”, and for remembering that Huey Lewis’ “Back in Time” had something to do with Back to the Future, but they sound terrible this way. And to make a Randy Newman song sound terrible is a crime against nature.

I don’t know how much of the movie-theft/parody eighth season was studio-dictated or artist-driven, but it just didn’t work. There wasn’t enough juice to make it work. Compare it to The Chipmunk Adventure, where the silliness of the original idea (however original you think it may be) actually provided enough opportunities for the considerable talents of the expatriate Disney artists to make a fun movie. The old dictum about it not being about the story you tell, but how you tell it, rings louder than ever when considering this comparison.

There’s nothing on these DVDs to talk about beyond feature content (a slideshow of original artwork and a soundtrack CD with Adventure; absolutely nothing with Movies), so any purchasing decisions about these DVDs should be made on the main content alone. Do yourself a favor and stick with The Chipmunk Adventure instead of the other disc if you’re looking for the nostalgic fun of it all. It’ll actually feel like the rewarding kind of nostalgia, as opposed to the kind that dissipates upon arrival.

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