There’s a scene toward the beginning of Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers in which Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) walks down Hollywood Boulevard, glaring down the ads for the latest creatively bankrupt offerings from the industry he left behind for a sensible job in insurance. There’s one for what looks to be a Muppet Babies–style spinoff of the Fast & Furious franchise with a slew of infants perched on the hood of a car (tagline: “Babies take the wheel”). There’s a gender-flipped version of Mrs. Doubtfire starring Meryl Streep in a bald cap (“Now streaming,” the poster promises). Then there’s the billboard for Batman vs. E.T., featuring the superhero and the beloved Spielberg alien glaring laser eyes at one another. Behind them, a full moon bears the dual silhouettes of the Bat-Signal and Elliott on his flying bike. “That one,” Chip grudgingly admits, “looks pretty good.”
Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers is well aware that, as a combination live-action and animated sequel (of sorts) to the Disney show of the same name, it’s as much a product of the current IP hellscape as any of these spoof titles. It just aims to be the unlikely pretty good one. That it succeeds speaks to how low the bar is and to the strength of its creative team, which, with Andy Samberg voicing Dale and Akiva Schaffer directing, encompasses two thirds of the Lonely Island. (Jorma Taccone, who was off making the MacGruber series, swings by to voice a few background characters.) Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers has more in common with Who Framed Roger Rabbit than it does the series with which it shares a name — to the point where Roger makes a cameo. Like Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 movie, it’s set in a reality in which cartoon characters live among us and takes the form of a Hollywood mystery in which past-their-prime animated stars have been vanishing. And like the 1988 movie, it’s not really a kiddie flick, stuffed with grown-up visual gags that demand frequent use of the pause button and flaunting some disturbing ideas about toon mutilation.
What it is, really, is a showbiz satire about media ownership and our nostalgia fixation, though it muddles its message before the tone gets too scathing. It is, after all, still a Disney movie, even if it takes a perverse pleasure in playing around with Disney’s vast catalogue of characters. Chip and Dale are two of them, having been created by animator Bill Justice in 1943, though it’s their reimagining as stars of a Disney afternoon series from the late ’80s and early ’90s — not coincidentally around when most of the Gen-Xers involved in this project were young — that really matters here. In the film, Chip and Dale are childhood friends who go to Hollywood together to seek out fame and fortune. The original Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers makes them stars until Dale tries to go solo, their show gets canceled, and an embittered Chip goes off to lead a normie life while Dale gets 3-D surgery and rides out his waning fame signing autographs at fan conventions and holding out for a reboot. Then their former mouse co-star Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) becomes the latest disappearance, leading the chipmunks to reunite in an effort to find him with the help of a detective and fan named Ellie (KiKi Layne).
Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, which was written by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, is filled with witty bits of business. A villain’s lair is located in the Valley, as in the Uncanny one, populated by the cats from Cats and a few dead-eyed motion-capture characters from The Polar Express and Beowulf (another, less flattering, nod to Zemeckis). J.K. Simmons is a delight as Captain Putty, a police chief in the style of a Gumby character who’s able to use his Claymation for some formidable fighting moves. Ugly Sonic — as in the version of Sonic the Hedgehog who was scrapped after fans revolted against his unsettling human teeth — plays a small but pivotal role as another animation D-lister (voiced by Tim Robinson, even). And the main baddie, Sweet Pete (Will Arnett), is actually Peter Pan, who grew up and turned to a life of crime after, like many a former child star, being deemed un-castable as an uncute adult. Still, despite all this cleverness, the story itself lacks bite and overall coherence, presenting a world in which being copyrighted corporate property is a prison, but being turned over to the public is even worse.
In the moment, Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers may offer the heady sense of comedians managing to do something subversive right under the nose of an iron-fisted media conglomerate, but that’s only because that iron-fisted media conglomerate has so accustomed us to the level of control it normally exerts. In the end, this is still a product of the house the mouse built, though it’s weirder than the norm — just the company proving it can laugh at itself provided the jokes aren’t too pointed. No one’s really getting away with anything.
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