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Alvin And The Chipmunks turned a one-note joke into a 4-film series

Alvin And The Chipmunks
Alvin And The Chipmunks

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Even as a novelty act, Alvin And The Chipmunks were pretty thin gruel. Created by Armenian-American songwriter (and Rear Window bit player) Ross Bagdasarian under the Anglicized pseudonym “David Seville,” the Chipmunks were a spin-off from Bagdasarian’s first big novelty hit, “Witch Doctor,” which featured Bagdasarian spouting gibberish at double speed in its chorus. After that song reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, Bagdasarian figured he had a winning idea on his hands, and decided to repurpose the song’s high-pitched recording technique from kitschy racial stereotypes to cuddly anthropomorphism. Thus, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore and their manager/dad Dave—all voiced by Bagdasarian—were born.

The Chipmunks’ first single was the “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” which was apparently far less irritating in 1958 than it is today, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 just in time for Christmas. Bagdasarian kept pumping out squeaky novelty records, many of them original compositions, throughout the radical cultural changes of the ’60s, culminating in a 10-year anniversary rehash of “The Chipmunk Song” featuring hippie-blues band Canned Heat. That attempt to get the flower children on board with the ’Munks failed, though, and in 1969 Bagdasarian released his final album as “Alvin, Simon, & Theodore with David Seville,” The Chipmunks Go To The Movies. He died in 1972.

A few years later, his son Ross Bagdasarian Jr. took up the family business, providing all the voices for the inexplicably popular comeback record Chipmunk Punk (which, for the record, was more new wave than punk, featuring songs by The Knack, The Cars, Billy Joel, and Linda Ronstadt) in 1980. That led to a Christmas special, a deluge of contemporary covers albums—Chipmunk Rock and Urban Chipmunk were two weird ones—and an animated series starring the trio that lasted for eight seasons on NBC, from 1983 to 1990.

Fast-forward another 17 years, a couple of direct-to-video animated movies, and even more covers albums, and Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife, Janice Karman, embarked on their most ambitious rodent-based enterprise yet: A live-action Alvin And The Chipmunks movie. Because that squeaky one-trick pony had sustained his family for nearly 50 years at that point, Bagdasarian Jr. and 20th Century Fox felt no need to tinker with greatness. Like everything else Chipmunks, this nascent franchise would rely on the bare-bones archetypes of “the smart one” (Simon), “the fat one” (Theodore), and “the cool guy” (Alvin, obviously), with little to no attempt to flesh out any other characters. And also like everything else Chipmunks (at least since the death of the elder Bagdasarian), it would fill the time not wasted on character development with shrill covers of contemporary pop hits, backed with a hip-hop beat for the new millennium.

Like everything else Chipmunks, the movie would bomb with critics—the four Alvin And The Chipmunks films have a dismal average 19-percent rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes—while appealing to mass audiences. Debuting around Christmas to decent (if not quite No.1) box office, every single one of the Alvin And The Chipmunks movies has made a profit, with total worldwide revenue for the quadrilogy totaling more than $1.3 billion. But the jokes are lame, the performances lackluster, the premise full of holes, and the music only tolerable when played at half speed, where it sounds like industrial music on anti-depressants.

Still, something has to be driving the Chipmunks’ popularity. But what is it? That’s the question posed by a binge of all four movies, because there’s not really a whole lot else to be gleaned from the experience. You might think, given that these movies were made over the course of nearly a decade—Alvin And The Chipmunks was released in 2007, and the most recent film, The Road Chip, came out in 2015—that they might serve as useful case studies of the evolution of computer-generated effects, or popular music, or the waxing and waning fortunes of its cast. But aside from a consistent loosening of its already-weak grasp on continuity (seriously, these things are riddled with errors), the core elements of the series remain unchanged.

Sure, each movie has one key musical number—amid the greatest hits of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—that gives away when it was made within an approximately two-year margin, and certain cast members will disappear for a movie at a time. (David Cross had a busy 2014, it seems.) So far at least, they always come back—for the money, presumably, because no one but the painfully earnest Bagdasarian Jr. seems to be able to make it through an interview without a derisive snort. And with respected comedians like Cross, Jason Lee, Jenny Slate, Jane Lynch, and Tony Hale appearing in at least one film apiece, the money must be pretty damn good. Those are just the humans: The voice cast is stacked with names as well, though, with all the filters being put on their voices to achieve that signature Chipmunks chirp, it’s extremely difficult to recognize them.

The series takes place in a dream version of Los Angeles of Bagdasarian’s design, a world where struggling musicians own houses, the record industry is still an all-powerful monolith, and the biggest stars in the world are three chipmunks, their tiny vocal cords the conduit through which all of popular music flows in spontaneous moments of divine inspiration, like miniature oracles of Delphi. They’re also just regular kids who get bullied at school, somehow.

The Chipmunks’ gift for music predates their formal education. The opening of Alvin And The Chipmunks sees Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney), naked in their woodland Eden, singing and dancing and loving life until the tree where they live gets cut down and carted off to Los Angeles to be sold on a Christmas tree lot. Once they arrive, happenstance and misadventure lead the resourceful rodents to the doorstep of Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a songwriter who just that morning had his newest work rejected by Ian Hawke (Cross), a powerful record executive who also happened to be Dave’s college roommate. Hawke’s presence in the film seems briefly to promise some Josie And The Pussycats-style self-aware cheekiness, namely in a mildly amusing sequence involving muffins. But alas, that’s not to be.

Instead, we’re treated to a kids’ movie of the “lowest common denominator” school, the kind that presumes that kids are idiots, so there’s no point in striving for narrative coherence where potty jokes and semi-current pop-culture references will suffice. After kicking the Chipmunks out of his house, Dave has his Garden State moment when he hears their mournful (but still tinny) harmonies in his front yard. One high-pitched rendition of “Funkytown” later, and he and the Chipmunks are creative partners as well as family. (It’s not until the fourth movie that someone finally verbalizes this odd dynamic, saying, “He’s not their dad because they’re chipmunks and he’s human.”) Everyone who hears the Chipmunks sing is stunned by the experience—literally stopped in their tracks, in the case of Dave’s estranged girlfriend Claire (Cameron Richardson)—and soon, thanks to some impossibly quick work on Ian’s part, the Chipmunks are on the cover of Rolling Stone, even though they only have one original song. Or, suspending disbelief for a moment, is it all original songs? If it’s the latter, their fame makes more sense; if Bob Dylan could use his songwriting ability to overcome his lack of conventional singing talent, surely three musical savants who spontaneously belt out hit pop song after hit pop song can do the same. Even if they are rodents.

This is where things start to get weird, with one of the series’ most confusing and persistent themes. Although they appear to be full grown and—sorry, but it must be said—sexual beings (at least Simon acts like one when he hires an attractive female housekeeper), Dave decides that the Chipmunks must be sheltered from the excesses of fame so they can have normal childhoods. (He also puts them in clothes—indicative of their loss of innocence, perhaps?) But now that they’ve tasted the forbidden fruit of fame, and are ashamed of their nakedness, they’re also susceptible to temptation. That’s where Hawke comes back in, offering them a life of Justin Bieber-style luxury in a mansion full of all the Nerf guns and video games they never had back in the woods. All he asks for in return in a grueling tour schedule that strains the boys’ tender young vocal chords. He then asks them to—gasp!—lip sync a show, a perfect opportunity to learn a very important lesson about work/life balance. You know, kids’ stuff.

The indifference of the writing, acting, and directing in Alvin And The Chipmunks cannot be overstated. Lee in particular turns in a markedly half-hearted performance, pursuing fame, fatherhood, and romance with equal levels of nervous malaise. Which would be a problem, if anyone else on the cast or crew seemed to give a shit. But—perfectly competent animators excepted—they don’t, a fact that becomes more and more obvious with every subsequent film.

Dave remains a cipher throughout the series, a benevolently square father figure who could be replaced by another actor without really affecting the plot all that much. Which brings us to Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009), in which Dave is removed from the action within the first 15 minutes after being injured during one of the Chipmunks’ sold-out stadium shows. (Guess the money was too good to stick with that whole “normal kids” thing.) Enter Toby (Zachary Levi), Dave’s hoodie-clad slacker cousin. Toby’s an idiot who plays video games all day and lets his elderly aunt bounce down a flight of stairs in her wheelchair, Battleship Potemkin-style, while he stands there with his jaw agape. Regardless, he’s been put in charge of the Chipmunks’ education at a local high school, because, once again, they are children. Who are international singing superstars. Who are chipmunks. Who are children.

Meanwhile, Cross’ Hawke has fallen on hard times ever since he was fired from his job, both as the Chipmunks’ manager and as a label executive. (He got kind of a raw deal, to be honest.) Lucky for him, though, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore are not the only chipmunks who have mutated into furry little living jukeboxes playing on the wrong speed. (Perhaps a nuclear accident is to blame? Or a secret government experiment? The question is never addressed.) Nope, there’s also Eleanor (Amy Poehler), Jeanette (Anna Faris), and Brittany (Christina Applegate), a.k.a. The Chipettes, three female chipmunks who share the boys’ curse. Whatever trickster god plucked these creatures from their woodland existence and endowed them with consciousness was not an especially imaginative one, as the Chipettes mirror the Chipmunks’ personalities and singing styles exactly.

One performance of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On,” and Hawke is hooked on the Chipettes. But instead of applying the same formula that made the Chipmunks famous, he enrolls Eleanor, Jeanette, and Brittany at the same school as the Chipmunks, hoping to restore his reputation by undermining the Chipmunks in a talent show. Never mind that they are worldwide superstars; in this film, they’re nothing more than the new kids in school, who get picked on by the guys on the football team (who are jealous of the Chipmunks’ sexual currency, expressed in the form of one oft-repeated anecdote about Diddy’s yacht) and can barely pack a school auditorium. That is, until Alvin joins the football team—why a player smaller than the football itself would be an asset, is, again, not addressed—leading to another very important lesson about loyalty and perhaps the series’ most unfortunate pop culture reference: “In the word of The Donald, ‘you’re fired.’” Ah, simpler times.

The machinations of the Chipmunks’ fame are mysterious; they are supposedly household names, but walk around unaccompanied and largely unrecognized. Sometimes it seems like the Chipmunks and/or Chipettes are washed up at the tender age of… uh, however old they are. But then a viral video or red carpet or something similar happens, and suddenly the world is once again swept up in Chipmunks fever. Their anonymity is at its peak in the dismissive and nonsensical third film in the series, Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011), probably the worst out of the four. Recounting the plot of Chipwrecked in explicit scene-by-scene detail sounds like the ravings of a lunatic—characters and plot points just sort of appear and disappear—but we’ll try.

Basically, Dave takes both the Chipmunks and Chipettes on a cruise, and Alvin, now (or always? Again, it’s hard to tell) in the throes of adolescent rebellion, decides to defy his not-dad’s exhortations to just fucking stay out of trouble for once so he can take a goddamn nap. This leads to them being chipwrecked (not shipwrecked, the ship is fine) after Alvin pulls the entire CGI wing of the Chipmunks gang off of the boat on a hang glider. They eventually land on a deserted island, where they meet Zoe (Jenny Slate), a castaway who frankly looks great if she’s really been stranded for the nine years she says she has. Zoe, like most adults, wants to use the Chipmunks/ettes for her own ends—in this case finding a buried treasure. Dave and Hawke, the latter of whom also just so happens to be on the same cruise ship as our heroes, join forces to go save their mutual gravy trains; there’s a big musical number; someone makes reference to that “Double Rainbow” YouTube video that was popular at the time; the end.

That brings us to the final film (for now) in the Alvin And The Chipmunks series, Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015). Cross sits this one out, as do the Chipettes, for the most part; this takes the emphasis off of the music and onto the gang’s family dynamic, which is framed with the same clumsy, childlike lens as the earlier films’ depiction of the record business. Case in point: This time around, Dave has a new girlfriend named Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), who we know is a doctor because she wears a stethoscope all the time. She’s also never been to Dave’s house, several months into their relationship. Consider the following clip, featuring Theodore rapping the famous first verse from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” in this light:

Weird, right? The plot of the film, to bestow the mildest of compliments, is more linear that that of Chipwrecked, following a standard road-trip narrative as Simon, Alvin, and Theodore team up with their bully from the second film, Miles (Josh Green), who also happens to be Samantha’s son, to prevent them from becoming common law brothers-in-law (Dave’s not the Chipmunks’ legal parent, remember). The boys suspect that Dave is going to propose to Samantha while on a business trip to Miami, and so they set out—first by plane, then by taxi, and finally by bus and by foot—from Los Angeles to stop the engagement, briefly stopping to remind everyone that they’re still famous by performing “Uptown Funk” in the midst of the eternal Mardi Gras that is New Orleans in a kids’ movie.

If you suspected this road “chip” would inspire love and loyalty between these former enemies, you’d be correct, although it takes Theodore nearly dying in a hit-and-run to cement their bond. All the while, they’re pursued by Agent Suggs (Tony Hale), an air marshal and disgruntled fan with a personal vendetta against the Chipmunks. He’s dogged, all right, continuing to pursue the gang even after a Hangover-for-kids vignette where he wakes up with ’Munks tattoos after getting tricked into getting drunk (don’t ask) in New Orleans. That makes the ease with which he’s ultimately dispatched by being trapped in an elevator even lazier. But whatever, dude, the guy from LMFAO is there, and so are Rhetta and Uzo Aduba in small roles. The Chipmunks even sing an original number for once, and we end on a heartwarming note as Dave signs the paperwork to legally adopt them, a formality that raises more questions than it answers. That’s always the way with these movies, though.

So, after six hours of critically derided kids’ movies with the substance of cotton candy, the only lessons here, sadly, are cynical ones. Apparently, you really do need nothing more than computer-generated critters squeaking out Destiny’s Child tunes and shaking their butts to “Turn Down For What” to make a hit franchise. You can’t blame the actors who appear in these movies; Hollywood can be cruel, and sometimes you’ve got to put on a pelican costume and make a couple of Justin Bieber jokes to get by between passion projects. And you certainly can’t blame the innocent children who are exposed to this particular combination of bright colors and catchy choruses. You could, maybe, blame baby-boomer nostalgia for inspiring the assumption that everything produced in the ’50s and ’60s is worth repackaging and reselling to a new generation. But ultimately, it’s not worth the effort. This is pure cinematic junk food, laden with empty calories and stretched into flavorlessness. Only, unlike with those addictive processed snacks, a tiny bite is more than enough.

Final ranking:
1. Alvin And The Chipmunks (2007)
2. Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)
3. Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009)
4. Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011)