December 20, 2007

Movie Review: Alvin and the Chipmunks

Being born in the mid-1970s I spent many of my younger years in the 1980's. That fact being true, I became a fan of the Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon series. How could I not? It was always on, it was colorful, and it held my attention. My fandom even carried on so far that I owned a few of the record albums (that's right, records, not CDs or even tapes). I remember having A Chipmunk Christmas, Urban Chipmunk, Chipmunk Punk, and Chipmunk Rock. Let me tell you, that is a lot of high pitched singing! I eventually grew out of that phase, but like many things from childhood, the trio held a special place in my heart. This translated to my intense worry concerning this live action film that was getting readied for the big screen. Well, not really, but jsut like anything you like from your childhood, I did not want to see the Chipmunks turned into a more of a commodity than they already are.

When the early teaser trailer came out, I thought for sure this was going to be a trainwreck. There was something in the way Jason Lee gave the "Allllviiiiiiin!" yell that did not ring true. It did not look natural, more like a put on yell to collect a paycheck. Then the full trailer arrived and I was still worried, but hey, David Cross is in it and he tends to consistently deliver laughs. Of course, I could have done without the fart jokes, but those seem to be inevitable in this kind of movie. Even with all of this concern (again, not really, but you get the idea), I still made my way out the theater and hoped for the best while expecting the worst.

I am happy to report that the movie was considerably better than I was expecting. No, it was not the best I had hoped for, nor will it be listed among the top family films. Still, I was won over by its charms and youthful energy. Alvin and the Chipmunks even had an interesting story to tell, complete with comments on the state of entertainment. I am also happy to report that the film is not about the return of the Chipmunks as the teaser would suggest, but is a new telling of how they got their start and rose to fame.

The story is a simple one. Tree containing chipmunks is cut down and becomes a Christmas tree in an office building. The chipmunks hitch a ride with struggling musician Dave Seville (Jason Lee). Dave discovers that the woodland critters can talk and sing, convinces them to sing his songs and are skyrocketed to fame.

Sounds simple enough.

Fortunately, the screenplay by John Vitti, Will McRobb, and Chris Viscardi actually has some substance to it. It also has plenty of moments for the audience to go: "Aww, isn't that cute." There is a little something for everyone if you are willing to pay attention, which for some will be a tough task. It all has to do with how much squeaky dialogue you are willing to put up with, not to mention the singing.

The movie glides along on energy that is absolutely infectious. It is one of those tales that is filled with positive energy, and even when you think you should be hating it, you cannot help but smile at all that is going on. I know the kids that were in my screening were into it, and that helps if you are going to have a successful kids movie.

As for what makes the movie better than expected comes on two fronts. The two are related but have different implications and different reasons for being. The first front is Jason Lee's arc as Dave Seville. As portrayed here, Dave is a down on his luck singer/songwriter with commitment issues. Once meeting the chipmunks, he instantly sees his ticket to the top and attempts to exploit that. Before long, Dave's opposition to commitment begins to wear down and he starts to see the chipmunks as his boys, while the chipmunks are looking for a father figure. As sweet as this arc is, it is interrupted midstream for the other interesting front. While the family thing is put to the background momentarily, this new front will play into the larger family arc.

This second front concerns the way youth is exploited by the industry. David Cross is Ian, the big shot producer pushing Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to make up their own minds, while pushing them towards life on the road. It happens time and time again in the real world. Some young actor will begin to make a name for themselves, but before they can experience their childhood, they are grown up, forced to mature beyond their years, or theu crack and turn to drink and drugs. Now, this is not every case, but it works here.

Ian lures the trio away from Dave with promises of toys and no rules. It is a seductive offer that cannot be refused. As their life moves forward, they begin to realize that they miss Dave and the love and structure that comes with it. Life on the road is wearing them out and pushing them further and further away from the ideals that Dave was teaching them.

So, taken together, you have a film about the ties that form between family members, even non-traditional ones, dovetailing with a look at the state of the entertainment industry and what can happen to those who do not keep both eyes open. Both threads told through the family filter of comedy and high-pitched singing.

Bottonmline. This is fun, pure and simple. The special effects are solid, the voice acting is good, and it has a little something to offer everyone. If you are looking for a fun family movie that is a bit more than just a diversion, Alvin and the Chipmunks should ably fill the bill.



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