Yes, I know. Four stars for the 21st Century big screen version of Ross Bagdasarian’s beloved Alvin and his talking, singing chipmunk brothers. Absolutely—four out of five stars for being cuter, funnier, and, besides, the character design far exceeded my expectations. As an elementary school child during the 1980s, I lived for Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. News of a live-action-cgi-combo feature film should’ve fallen on disapproving ears. But it didn’t. On the contrary, I was intrigued.
Based upon characters created by Bagdasarian roughly six decades ago, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” (Tim Hill) tells the story of how Dave Seville (Jason Lee) goes from lonely, rejected songwriter to successful surrogate father of chipmunks. Their destinies collide when Alvin, Simon, and Theodore’s home in the Sierra Lakes Tree Farm is cut down and whisked off to be a Christmas tree adorning the lobby of the Jett Records building. After meeting with record executive Ian Hanoke (David Cross), Seville unknowingly carries home with him three chipmunk stowaways. Following the initial shock of discovering these exceptional woodland creatures and their talents, Seville agrees to house and feed the Chipmunks in exchange for their singing his songs. After some adjusting, Seville becomes a friend and father-figure to the “kids,” who rejuvenate his stalled songwriting career.
Millions of records are sold, the Chipmunks have rampant, unsupervised fun, but not without consequences. “Uncle Ian’s” attempt to sabotage the bond between Dave and the “boys” puts Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in danger of becoming exploited and exhausted as property of Jett Records. The film contains just enough peril for young viewers to feel concern for the Chipmunks (and Dave), but not to the traumatic degree of Bambi’s mother. Moreover, underneath the furry exterior lies a cautionary tale for would-be child stars (as if E! True Hollywood stories of child actors aren’t sufficiently convincing), a self-conscious jab at the music industry, and a glimpse for potential dads into the emotional aspect of children’s need for affection.
Matthew Gray Gubler, who also plays the uber-smart FBI agent on the CBS show “Criminal Minds,” is the voice of Simon. Justin Long (of IMAC vs. PC commercials and “Live Free or Die Hard”) provides Alvin’s. Teen dreamsicle Jesse McCartney plays Theodore, who is adorable beyond words and possesses the face with the most personality. Simon’s eye glasses make him distinctive, but Alvin doesn’t stand out as much visually apart from the A on his shirt (the red baseball cap appears very briefly and very late in the film).
Before watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” I was cautiously curious about what it could offer. Ninety-minutes later, I was pleasantly surprised. In addition to including the Chipmunks’ ”The Christmas Song” (“Me, I want a hula hoop”) and “Witch Doctor,” the film has modernized Alvin, Simon, and Theodore’s repertoire with a little bit of beatboxing. The jingle of “Alvin, Simon, Theodore, doo, doot, doo, doo, doot, do” is missing, but the movie more than compensates for this lack with these and other fantastic scenes: Alvin singing the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” in the dishwasher; Theodore snuggles with Dave after having a nightmare; Simon pretends to eat a “raisin;” the trio going nuts with toys and electronics.
The ending credits deserve some recognition for the way it makes the argument that neither the real deal nor two-dimensional cell animated animals would’ve worked with the live-action (real chipmunks prove to be plain creepy) and integrates the Chipmunks’ changes in appearance over the years (images from records and the television series).