It seems like a hip, ingenious idea: hire a few of The Lonely Island guys and a few of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers to deliver a fresh, off-kilter take on an animated Disney Channel series from the late ’80s. But the facelift that director Akiva Schaffer and screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand perform in the Disney+ original feature Chip ’N Dale: Rescue Rangers yields mixed results. The humor skews too adult for youngsters, whose familiarity with and affinity towards the original series barely charts, while simultaneously being too tame for adults craving that dopamine hit of nostalgia. Although the film takes its irreverence to heart, the story told—about two estranged pals learning to be friends again while reassembling their squad—is flat and familiar, even if the particulars are unique.
Cartoon chipmunks Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) have been best friends since meeting in elementary school. From their shared curiosities to their individual eccentricities, they understand and encourage each other, never caring about fitting in with their peers. It’s clear early on that their talent is in performing as a comedy act with Dale being the klutzy goof to Chip’s straight man—their de facto identities even when not on stage. After moving to Los Angeles to become actors and surviving a brief bout of financial hardship, the pair get their big break starring in Rescue Rangers, a popular detective show.
Everything is fine and dandy until Dale suddenly becomes creatively disillusioned and, rather bafflingly, abandons Chip to star on a TV pilot by himself. Despite the dynamic duo’s split and the pilot’s failure to land with audiences, Dale, who’s gone through “CGI surgery” to stay relevant in the industry, finds himself happily subsisting as a has-been on the convention circuit. Chip has also found contentment in mediocrity as an insurance salesman in suburbia. However, the pair are forced to reunite and work out their long-standing differences when their former co-star Monty (Eric Bana), now a washed-up drunk with a massive debt problem, goes missing after alerting them to a criminal organization’s plot to kidnap animal actors, physically change their identities, and force them to act in bootlegged films.
While this lifts a great deal in tonal, aesthetic, and narrative influence from its far better cinematic predecessor Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, building a world where toons co-exist with humans and featuring a noir-style mystery that skews more adult, it fuses some of its own clever creativity into its underlying sentiments. Commentary on how we treat nostalgia—delivering a particularly stinging treatise on fame and celebrity culture in the meta-subtext—is ingeniously hidden in the narrative’s underpinnings. Subject matter dealing with human trafficking, loan sharking, and body horror feels totally unexpected and not at all unwarranted, nor unwanted. It’s also nice to see that within the barrage of self-reflexive jokes lie greater themes centered on insecurity, identity, and teamwork—all things kids watching can relate to and may be struggling with.
But the majority of the picture’s astute, admirable qualities are bogged down by its incessant, smug comedic bits and trite platitudes. The life-lesson of “the biggest risk is not taking any risk at all” drops like an ACME anvil whenever mentioned. Many of the allusions and metaphors will fly over kids’ heads. The ex-pals’ buddy-cop dynamic is neither noteworthy nor terribly refreshing. The lone time it works believably is when the two get their groove back doing an awkward improvised rap about whales to throw off a slithering henchman (Flula Borg). Dale’s maddening, contrived motivation to ditch Chip betrays what we’re told and shown about his character in the set-up—so much so that he fails to win us back even after he inevitably states his wrong-headed reasoning later on. Chip is better off without him.
The creatives litter the feature with an onslaught of offbeat jokes, everything from loads of self-aware set-ups and punchlines that don’t quite hit their mark to fairly funny visual gags involving spoof movie titles (Lego Misérables being amongst the best). Plenty of random humor provides distraction from the simplistic plot—like the multitude of cameos from non-Disney IP, who populate the background as bit players, and the long-running gag about Dale’s agent Dave Bollinari (Chris Parnell), who’s exclusively referred to by his full name and whose mentions admirably follow the comedy rule of threes. Yet rarely does any of it genuinely tickle our funny bone.
Rather than major fits of laughter, chuckles of acknowledgement pepper the audience’s viewing experience, at least for folks over the age of 25. The pint-sized crowd might not be nearly as enthused with the grown-up gags as much as they might be with the action-packed mystery that respectfully replicates the series’ aspirations and appeal. Perhaps this is one they’ll grow with and appreciate over time. However, much like the show has diminished from pop culture consciousness, the film striving to honor it will likely fade from our collective memories too.