At one point in The Road Chip, Alvin the talking, singing, wiseass chipmunk finds himself seated on a plane in first class next to the director John Waters, who stares at him disapprovingly. Alvin thinks it’s because Waters is unused to seeing a chipmunk traveling in first class, but Waters shuts that idea down. “Actually, I recently rode next to the Chipettes,” the director sniffs, noting the name of Alvin’s fellow all-girl chipmunk pop band, “and they were ladies.” To which Alvin retorts, “Don’t judge me. I saw Pink Flamingos.”
My 6-year-old son can attest to the fact that I laughed quite a bit at this line — one of the few solid laughs in the movie, if you ask me, though he would most certainly disagree. And it wasn’t just because of the mental image it conjured up of Alvin kicking back at home with a DVD (or, better yet, the out-of-print Criterion laserdisc) of Waters’s filthily scatological, transgressive cult classic, but also because of the clever, meta-retort embedded within. For the scene comes not long after another moment wherein Simon (one of Alvin’s chipmunk bandmates), trying to sneak past airport security inside someone’s pants, pees himself and drops a turd out of fear. The kids loved that one. Most of us adults probably sneered: “Oh great, another kids’ movie with a poop joke.” So this later scene with Alvin recalling one of Waters’s main claims to fame – the very one in which the late, great Divine actually eats dog poop – was the damned, dirty chipmunk putting the rest of us snotty grown-ups in our place.
Actually, one at times wishes that The Road Chip, the fourth film in the Alvin and the Chipmunks feature-film franchise, took a few more weirdo risks like that, instead of playing pretty much everything so mildly and safely. The story concerns our furry heroes discovering that their beloved surrogate dad and manager Dave (Jason Lee) is in love with a new woman, Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and that her teenage (human) son Miles, played by Josh Green, is a bit of a dick. When the Chipmunks and Miles begin to suspect that Dave is planning on proposing to Samantha during a Miami getaway, they decide to head down and put a stop to this madness. The idea of becoming family terrifies them. Along the way, the chipmunks provoke the vengeful obsessiveness of air marshal Agent Suggs (Arrested Development’s Tony Hale), after one of them inadvertently free some animals in the cargo hold of a plane. There’s also plenty of singing, dancing, chasing, pratfalls, and easy resolutions. And if you ever wanted to see a chipmunk sing, “Baby Got Back,” well, congratulations, Christmas is here.
Still, it’s all mostly harmless as far as these things go — lazy, sure, but harmless. Though I’m still a little baffled as to why Jason Lee, whose strength tends to be the laid-back, offhand manner of his delivery, plays Dave in such over-the-top fashion, bugging his eyes out and over-emphasizing his lines as if trying to channel Crispin Glover. There’s also the small matter of his eye-lines, which don’t always match with the CGI rodents with which he’s supposed to be interacting. That said, the effects here are mostly solid and generally well-integrated with the action; the chipmunks are cute and cuddly, and your kids would probably want one if they weren’t too busy begging for Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. No grown-up goes to see a Chipmunks movie because they want to; they go because they have to. I’m here to report that the experience, while not exactly pleasant, is mostly painless.