Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers needs rescued from the Mouse House, which has here flattened the meta-reboot into a flavorless work of IP regurgitation.
Somewhere in the second act of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, the cartoon chipmunks find themselves in the Valley, which in this live-action animated hybrid is populated by freaky, so nearly lifelike as to be unnerving, CGI creations. See, it’s not the San Fernando Valley, but the Uncanny Valley. Like most jokes in Rescue Rangers, it’s an obvious, toothless bit with an equally obvious target. One of the rangers remarks that the population looks like The Polar Express, a film that most would agree is the peak of garish, uncanny animation in popular cinema. But this slight against Robert Zemeckis — continuing a small trend of making the director a punching bag after the nonsense sight gag in I’m Thinking of Ending Things — is lowest common denominator humor for movie geeks, a joke at the expense of bold failure from the craven safety of unoriginality. Nevermind that these chipmunks are so eager to bite the hand that feeds; every minute of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers owes its existence to one of Zemeckis’ best films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The movie is happy to let you know that, too. If the jumping-off point were not immediately obvious, Roger Rabbit himself is among the first of the film’s many cameos by animated characters, appearing in the opening voiceover delivered by Dale (Andy Samberg) detailing the first time he met Chip (John Mulaney) as a youngster and their subsequent rise to superstardom in the 1990s. Roger Rabbit might, in retrospect, shoulder much of the blame for today’s bankrupt intellectual property crossover extravaganzas, but there and then it was novel, nevermind that the film was specific in its goals and vivacious in its filmmaking. Animated superstars of the 20th century did not populate Roger Rabbit as a game of spot the reference, but were built into its strangely adult noir plot. Zemeckis’ film is sexed-up, funny, and weird. Rescue Rangers is a film made for Disney+ that totally pales in comparison to the thing it invites comparison to, the way making stinky cheese analogous to drugs can’t hold a candle to the sexual innuendo of playing patty cake.
The plot of Rescue Rangers involves Chip and Dale reuniting long after retirement to free their kidnapped, gorgonzola-addicted friend Monterey Jack from the clutches of Sweet Pete, a crook who runs a bootlegging operation surgically altering toons to ship them overseas to appear in copyright-dodging rip-offs of their own properties. Red-nosed Dale, who spends his time appearing with other has-beens at cartoon conventions, has gone under the knife, receiving a surgery that has made him completely CGI, while Chip, now an insurance salesman, remains 2D. He also doesn’t look like he used to, though it’s not because of age or anything explained in the movie, but simply that the 2D animation in Rescue Rangers is crummy digital animation, made worse by repeated glimpses at the much better looking original cartoon the film is based on. It’s as if the filmmakers have themselves pulled a Sweet Pete and created a bootleg of Chip and every other 2D character within. Along the way, they team up with police both human and toon to save their friend, crossing paths with a ton of recognizable cartoon characters who are present simply to be recognized. Each cameo is made either in the spirit of “hey, remember this?” or “what if X character and Y character did Z action?” There’s little of the animating spirit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in this dull meta-reboot, but instead more of the same IP nostalgia that enervated Space Jam 2.
This new Chip ‘n Dale is perhaps most disappointing as a Lonely Island project, though. Akiva Schaffer is no great shakes as a director, but his work with Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone has produced some of the funniest comedies in recent years. Your mileage may vary on the dick humor and loud-mouthed silliness of their oeuvre, but to many, this writer included, they’ve more than earned their cult adoration. The hope was that Schaffer and Samberg might bring some of that loopy, anarchic energy that made Popstar so much fun to this take on a Disney cartoon, despite kids movie restrictions being put on their usual sense of humor. But the Mouse always wins it seems, and the results are anonymous and anodyne, any hint of Lonely Island’s idiosyncrasies completely flattened out until the only evidence they were even here is Samberg’s voice coming through the lips of a CGI chipmunk.
You can currently stream Akiva Schaeffer’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers on Disney+.