Hollywood Century, 2009: In which children__s entertainment can only be regarded as a vile act of contempt for both children and childhood
There is blackness, to begin with. Impenetrable black, with unfocused electric guitar chords slicing through the nothing. And then comes the giggling, shrill and mad, the voice of some otherworldly hellspawn that has seen things that any living thing would pray to never see, to never imagine. And then the voice speaks, and its words come in a taunting sing-song: "We're baaaaack..."
And that is the first thing to happen in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
It's a more auspicious opening for a horror film than a children's movie, which turns out to be just about right. As one of the most thoroughly unjustified sequels in the history of the moving image, the 2009 follow-up to 2007's miserable Alvin and the Chipmunks manages, somehow, to do everything worse. It manages, somehow to both function as a dull-minded retread while self-consciously "upping" the whole shebang, even introducing a whole new slate of second-tier protagonists, leading to a story that's far more enervating than it's possible to imagine or describe. The design and animation of the titular creatures is still an enormous liability, with their grotesque cartoon-realist faces squatting nastily on the well-rendered fur of their bodies, and the marriage between them and the live-action footage making up the rest of the film feeling positively awful, as actors gamely attempt to interact with characters they clearly don't believe in, in some cases. Appallingly, the only really committed performance comes from David Cross as the recycled bad guy, former record company executive Ian Hawk; he actually digs into the nasty depths of the role and the comic strip logic driving a very peculiar and uninteresting revenge plot. Everybody else is pretty much just staring at the chipmunks with expressions that plainly telegraph the thought process "there? Is that what they're sitting on? And if I put my hand right... here, I should be touching one of them". Especially Kathryn Joosten, an admirable seventy-year-old character actress whose befuddlement at everything required of her in a story-inciting one-scene performance reads with heartbreaking clarity through every over-articulate line reading.
In The Squeakquel - my fingers are going to go numb from typing that word, I can just tell - we find that talking chipmunk brothers Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are full-on international rock superstars, giving a benefit concert in Paris as the film opens. With stately inevitability, their human guardian Dave (Jason Lee) is injured and laid up in traction in a French hospital (with the Eiffel Tower looming outside the window, because of course it would be), and the boys' care falls to his kind Aunt Jackie (Joosten). But when she's almost immediately flung backwards down an escalator, in one of the very small number of scenes of slapstick violence I have ever seen in a children's movie that actually made me feel like something immoral was being done in the name of (extremely poor) comedy and (negligible) entertainment, they end up relying on her slacker gamer grandson Toby (Zachary Levi) for all their survival needs.
As if this wasn't bad enough, Dave's one great wish is for the chipmunks to go to high school. That this is fucking insane is not considered for a minute, even for the sake of a crappy joke; not even the bullies and such that show up with inexorable timeliness seem to find it weird that there are five-inch-tall animals wearing clothes wandering the halls. Especially not animals who are presumably worth millions and millions of dollars at this juncture. Also not finding it weird: the school's many girls who coo with sexual delight at seeing their favorite pop stars sharing classes with them. Because that's not creepy, confusing, and totally unnecessary in a movie for six-year-olds.
There are soon enough going to be more species-appropriate objects for the chipmunks' burgeoning sexuality, though: Ian has recently managed to find and swindle three talking chipmunk girls, and hearing that the boys' new school is putting them up as its competitors in a regional music competition, he enrolls his new victims in the same school, hoping to convince the principal (Wendie Malick) to put them in competition instead. With her own fangirlish enthusiasm for Alvin and his brothers, she is reluctant to agree, but the school body demands otherwise, and so the chipmunks are thrust into competition with the objects of their first-ever crushes, all of them conveniently color-coded and designed so that we know instantly who goes with who: sporty girl-Alvin is Brittany (Christina Applegate), brainy, glasses-wearing girl-Simon is Jeanette (Anna Faris), and plump, kind girl-Theodore is Eleanor (Amy Poehler). Point 1: playing the romantic determinism card quite this forcefully is no good for anybody. Point 2: you have to be a staggeringly enormous asshole to cast Faris and Poehler in your voice cast only to run them through all those layers of processing to make them anonymously chirpy and shrieking, devoid of anything that even accidentally resembles personality. It's like buying wagyu beef filets and drenching them beneath a sea of ketchup.
Overprocessed, deeply unpleasant covers of pop songs spin out at routine intervals, while the shockingly thin plot sneaks its way through all of the extraneous nonsense, much of it involving the completely superfluous Toby, designed for no better reason than the give the film enough padding to stretch out to the epic length of 88 minutes. The Squeakquel owes its existence solely to financial considerations, due to its predecessor's unwarranted box office success, and this does not by any means make it special in the annals of cinema; nor does the fact that its creators make no effort to justify its existence even so. Storytelling at even a basic functional level is of no interest to writers Jon Vitti and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, nor to director Betty Thomas, and not, I assume, out of ineptitude. Why bother? The first movie was a vicious and vile wreck of terrible characters doing terrible things, and it left little reason to improve either the characters or the incident. Put the characters in, turn their nasty little voices up all the way, and include the same bullshit comedy (though The Squeakquel at least dials back on scatology - there's not one single gag about coprophagy in the whole damn thing), and the money rolls in. Which it did, in abundance. Faced with that kind of can't-lose scenario, and such inauspicious ingredients, who wouldn't just coast on terrible, lazy ideas that don't make sense, like putting talking superstar chipmunks in a public high school, and then cranking through routine plot developments that have no interest in what being a chipmunk among humans might entail, either at the character level or even just as a source for comedy.
It's infuriating enough when this kind of "fuck you, we know you're seeing it anyway" sequel comes out, as happens multiple times every year (we're in a particularly ripe time for such things, but they've been part of Hollywood's arsenal since at least the 1930s); but when it's married to the equally insufferable "fuck your kids, we know you just want to shut them up for a little while" tang of far too much children's entertainment, it becomes positively evil. The Squeakquel is not, on its merits as a work of cinema, any good at all: flatly shot, with obviously confused actors spitting out terrible lines of dialogue and stomping through unmotivated scenes. But what it is and what it represents is far, far worse than just a witless and uninspired children's comedy. This is the living embodiment of the intellectual contempt of a system that views its audience solely as passive consumers, and movies solely as product designed to meet the needs of a checklist. There are objectively worse films than The Squeakquel made every single year, but this is about as close as it comes to a motion picture totally stripped of any value as art or entertainment in any respect.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 2009
-Tired of nobody having made the most immersive 3-D spectacle of all time yet, James Cameron provides Avatar
-Disney briefly attempts to roll back American animation's total embrace of CGI with The Princess and the Frog
-Drunk with power, Peter Jackson uses CGI and cloying sentiment to smother The Lovely Bones
Elsewhere in world cinema in 2009
-The late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is adapted into three rather drab Swedish films starring the magnetic Noomi Rapace
-Proving that Hollywood isn't unique in pitting virtually indistinguishable movie against the next, France produces two entirely unrelated Coco Chanel biographies, Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
-Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth raises the bar for familial dysfunction in the movies