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Review: New Chip ‘N Dale movie hilariously spoofs classic games, cartoons


When there's danger!
Enlarge / When there’s danger!

Disney

Traditionally, when Disney films skip theaters and go straight to video, it’s not a good sign. That’s changed somewhat now that the Disney+ content beast needs to be fed, yet the company still differentiates between “triple-A television” like The Mandalorian and “cheap, kid-friendly movies” like the Air Bud series.

Hence, today’s Disney+ premiere of Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangersa PG-rated reboot with little in the way of advance press screenings—had us assuming the worst, despite of its comedy pedigree. The Lonely Island (“Lazy Sunday,” “Mother Lover”) is all over the film’s credits, but how much of the group’s boundary-pushing Saturday Night Live work could survive the family-friendly demands of a straight-to-Disney+ launch?

I’m here with surprisingly good news. Chip ‘N Dale is a self-aware comedy romp that families will appreciate. What’s more, it knows exactly when and how to toy with ’80s and ’90s gaming, cartoon, and pop-culture references without losing character development and physical comedy.

Time-to-male-strippers: only a few minutes (but PG-rated, we swear)

As far as the two characters' aesthetics are concerned, even rendering of elements like motion blur is different between the pair. The result looks pretty cool in motion.
Enlarge / As far as the two characters’ aesthetics are concerned, even rendering of elements like motion blur is different between the pair. The result looks pretty cool in motion.

Disney

The film is Disney’s best-ever hybrid of live action, CGI, and hand-drawn animation, with lead characters Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (voiced by Andy Samberg) each offering different spins on modern animation. Chip combines 3D rendering with a cel-shaded filter, hand-drawn touches, and intentionally narrowed animation speeds in order to look like a living 2D cartoon, complete with tasteful touches of ambient occlusion and light-bounce rendering.

Dale, as part of a running gag in the film, has gotten “CGI surgery” and emerges as a fully 3D-rendered chipmunk. The film begins by zooming in on his disproportionate eyes and other uncanny-valley weirdness for comedic effect, but this quickly softens, and as the film barrels toward emotional, kid-friendly connections between the chipmunks, Dale eventually looks quite good, with his animated, glossy eyes standing out.

Mild spoilers ahead, but we’re being mindful of how easily spoiled some of the gags in this film are.

Samberg’s opening narration suggests that the phrase “Chip ‘N Dale” is likely to remind viewers of a few things—and it then flashes a PG-rated image of male strippers. The film’s script and visual gags do a masterful job of making similar above-kids’-heads references or blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jabs at the gaming and cartoon worlds.

The film’s most howl-worthy stuff skewers beloved Disney properties and Disney rivals alike. So much so, in fact, that I watched the entirety of the credits to see exactly who got thanked for allowing their biggest franchises to be either passive-aggressively mocked or outright, er, melted in this film. Though a few gags reach back to the earliest days of Disney’s film catalog, a majority will land for any parents in the room who grew up in the Gen-X or elder millennial camps. That’s probably not surprising for a film whose lead characters hail from the “Disney Afternoon Collection” of late ’80s characters. If you can imagine a cartoon that emerged or competed with Disney around that time, it’s likely to appear here in either obvious or subtle ways.

The duo, seen here finishing each other's... sandwiches.
Enlarge / The duo, seen here finishing each other’s… sandwiches.

Disney

Mulaney and Samberg each double down on the archetypes of their two characters: Chip is brainy and assertive as a leader but also a stick-in-the-mud about pushing boundaries, while Dale favors impulsive and goofy solutions to serious problems, albeit while stomaching some raging insecurities. We get to see each lead character move on from early ’90s fame to their “adult” lives for the next 25 years or so before they’re forced to reunite. Their old castmate Monterrey Jack has crossed the wrong loan shark, and Chip and Dale decide to bury their decades-old feud to do some rescuing and rangering. (One of the plot threads has Mulaney’s Chip opining about Monterrey’s issues, and if you’re familiar with Mulaney’s real-life trials and tribulations, you may darkly chuckle the same way I did during these moments.)

Reaching comedic heights that Never Stop Never Stopping couldn’t

The film’s biggest gaming-related gags are already lighting up social media, which I’m bummed to see as I write this review, but even if you merely glance at one of the jokes in question, you can still look forward to how far the joke goes—and how hilariously the film zooms in on the gag in question. The same goes for the method by which the film’s villains rope in other pop-culture references, enabled by a clever mechanism that lets the film’s art team go nuts with surprise cameos.

KiKi Layne nails a likeable-but-mild amount of earnestness while portraying an apparently huge fan of the film's leading duo.
Enlarge / KiKi Layne nails a likeable-but-mild amount of earnestness while portraying an apparently huge fan of the film’s leading duo.

Disney

But I’m the kind of cartoon watcher who thinks stuff like the Shrek series erred by too harshly skewering its cartoon contemporaries instead of establishing its own humor, jokes, and pacing. If you identify with that unease about meta-obsessive films, you’ll appreciate how well Chip ‘N Dale focuses its story on the relatable, uneven friendship between the lead chipmunks, with each sappy moment buoyed by adorable, scaled-for-critters environments and goofy humans-and-cartoons interplay. This film’s world is essentially a Roger Rabbit mix of humans and cartoons, only this time expanded to puppets, CGI creations, and more. Any time Chip ‘N Dale‘s momentum appears to stutter, the film offers up a dose of humor and whimsy.

The supporting cast is rounded out by an earnest human detective (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a Gumby-like police chief (JK Simmons), and a few surprise antagonists (each hilariously voiced by the likes of Tim Robinson, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, and more). It’s arguably here that The Lonely Island succeeds as filmmakers compared to their cult-classic comedies like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. I’m a Lonely Island apologist, but even I’ll admit that those films focus too squarely on their central cast instead of spreading the humor out and developing more funny characters along the way.

This stylish top-hat ensemble might not be enough to save Dale today.
Enlarge / This stylish top-hat ensemble might not be enough to save Dale today.

Disney

By splitting the difference between formulaic Disney journeys and sardonic Lonely Island satires, and getting more comedic voices in on the gags, Chip ‘N Dale delivers something for everyone. Parents will arguably have more access points for laughs than their kids. Yet the film still has enough modern gags and timeless humor to keep kids from getting too stir-crazy as it builds towards a riotous conclusion—and if your kids have enjoyed live-action gaming films like Sonic The Hedgehog or Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, they should give this one a shot for sure.

Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers is now streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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