Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)


Alvin and the Chipmunks
Dir. Tim Hill
Premiered December 13, 2007

You know that game where you describe a pop culture phenomenon to highlight how weird it is, and everyone is left wondering how it ever caught on? Alvin in the Chipmunks has to win every time, because it’s never stopped being weird.

In 1958, an upstart entertainer named David Seville (real name Ross Bagdasarian) recorded a Christmas novelty song and then sped it up so he could claim it was being sung by a trio of chipmunks. This isn’t the strange part– between Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys was this horrible period where rock and roll almost died as soon as it first showed up, and novelty songs were freakishly popular.

The weird thing is that Alvin and the Chipmunks kept going. Bagdassarian managed to keep his rights to the characters and his son wisely deployed them in the ‘80s when they became a piece of boomer nostalgia and could be introduced to a new generation. The nice thing about making entertainment for kids is that everything is new to them, so the market was evergreen for new records, cartoon series, and even an animated feature in 1987, which makes 2007’s live action film yet another instance of double-nostalgia.

True to form for such an underdtaking, Alvin and the Chipmunks is ostensibly an origin story, but doesn’t really explain anything. Even in their secluded woodland home, leader Alvin (Justin Long), token nerd Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and oafish Theodore (Jesse McCartney) speak, sing, and endlessly reference pop culture in the spirit of Shrek, yet the film’s universe is utterly mundane and grounded, which might work in a more absurdist comedy, but is meaningless in a movie with barely any jokes and no laughs.

The story begins as the Chipmunks’ tree is cut down to be used as a Christmas tree in the lobby of JETT Records, where struggling songwriter Dave Seville (Jason Lee) is trying to wow his record executive friend Ian (David Cross) with a hot new song. It’s also revealed that Dave also works in advertising, but only in a single unaccountable scene with no bearing on the rest of the movie.

After stowing away with a basket of muffins, the Chipmunks reveal themselves to Dave, who isn’t nearly as shocked by the existence of talking chipmunks as he is frustrated with their messy habits (including an instance of eating shit). Dave begins to warm to them when they reveal their talent for singing, and attempts to harness their skill to present Ian with the new sound he’s been looking for, but they get cold feet, and Dave finds the boys’ familial attachment offputting. Don’t worry though, this is just padding, as Alvin and company go to Ian themselves and get a hit song on the radio within hours. Naturally, Ian then takes the Chipmunks on a whirlwind tour of boy band excess, milking every ounce of life out of them until they wish to have Dave back.

Or so the plot dictates; nothing onscreen ever lands, because no one involved in the film seems to have cared. Each element of the movie seems to have been conceived separately in a vacuum and then executed by a uniformly indifferent cast and crew, which might be a first in this series.

Where Bagdassarian himself voiced the original Chipmunks, director Tim Hill and company were compelled to give the roles to more prominent actors with little to no voiceover experience, despite the fact that their voices are altered beyond the point of recognition– like George Clooney voicing a dog on South Park, except not a joke. But even this is a failure as there’s nary a household name to be found: Justin Long (previously seen in Live Free or Die Hard) was best known as “A Mac” from Apple computer commercials, Jesse McCartney had been a moderately successful child actor and singer-songwriter, and Matthew Gray Gubler had had only two credited roles before this.

And then there’s the special effects: not to sound like a broken record, the film’s use of CGI is atrocious. The chipmunks’ character design is an unnerving compromise between cartoonish expressiveness (owing more to early Dreamworks than the original cartoon), realistic rodent fur and body type, and nightmarish “relatable” human eyeballs. It’s often challenging to articulate the difference between good and bad CGI, but our protagonists present a refreshingly straightforward lesson in what can go wrong.

For his part, it’s not surprising that Jason Lee can’t interact with imaginary beings– we can’t all be Ewan McGregor, and the movie’s unusually static cinematography and blocking suggest that not even Hill knew where the Chipmunks would ultimately appear in the frame. But even when he doesn’t have to imagine, Lee gives one of the worst performances of his career, always projecting but steadfastly refusing to emote. When Bagdassarian’s Seville screamed “Alviiiiiin!” it was meant to recall a harried and probably abusive stage father. When Lee screams, it’s practically under his breath, and the supporting cast offers no help except perhaps David Cross, whose contempt for the project shines through in a vaguely entertaining manner.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The film opens with the Chipmunks singing Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” itself a bland, unappealing pop cultural product that somehow reached inescapable popularity. Simon’s classic round glasses are replaced with narrow rectangular David Tennant-style frames. And in the fourth and final Pussycat Dolls reference of 2007, Alvin sings “Don’t Cha” in the shower.

How Did It Do?
Alvin and the Chipmunks grossed $361.3 million against a $60 million budget to become the 14th-biggest film of 2007 and to date has spawned four sequels– sorry, squeakuels. Critics unsurprisingly reviled the film, earning it a 27% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Philips said the movie “…goes in one eye and out the other…” so I look forward to quickly forgetting it.

Director Tim Hill started in the world of Nicktoons before making a career of critically-loathed nostalgia-driven adaptations that live action with animation, and unfortunately this isn’t the last we’ll see of him if I keep doing retrospectives.

Next Time: National Treasure: Book of Secrets