Hollywood Century, 2011: In which I profoundly regret that I did not write myself a loophole
With 2011's Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, we arrive at my favorite point in the life of a franchise: when everybody stopped caring and lost their goddamned minds. The chief failure of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, made two years prior - and oh, how many different ways that film fails! it is an impossibility to pick the best - is, I think, that it blandly transposed its characters into the most generic possible high school scenario. This is not a problem with Chipwrecked. It is many things, and not a single one of them is good, but it's not generic. It's also thematically incompatible with The Squeakquel, which is all about the pressures and responsibilities of adolescence, while Chipwrecked is about kids struggling to prove their ability to be independent beings from their parents. Perhaps, in this franchise's underexplored universe, chipmunks age backwards, like Benjamin Button. Maybe that will be the plot of Alvin and the Chipmunks 4.
Following the events of the last movie, chipmunk brothers Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Thedore (Jesse McCartney) are now living with chipmunk sisters Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeannette (Anna Faris), and Eleanor (Amy Poehler), all under the care of human Dave Seville (Jason Lee). They are also now one big six-member supergroup of international pop stars, and their familial bond does not hide the charge of sexual attraction that crosses between them in conveniently color-coded and body shape-appropriate ways, but they are not apparently having constant chipmunk orgies, which strains credibility even for a film wherein six of the seven named characters I have so far mentioned in this plot synopsis are talking rodents who sing heavily autotuned versions of actual pop songs to armies of adoring fans.
Watching Chipwrecked, I found my head wandering to the mechanics of all this: are these actually the Chipmunks' and Chipettes' songs in this reality, or are they just prolific, popular cover artists? When they sing e.g. "Vacation" and "Firework", does that mean that the Go-Gos and Katy Perry don't actually exist in this world? And why the hell are they so popular, anyway? Surely all these teenyboppers don't actually have romantic crushes on the chipmunks, please God, though in the last film, Wendie Malick clearly was thinking filthy thoughts about them.
You guys, I think the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies might be stupid.
So, Dave is taking his six adopted children on a vacation prior to their big performance at the International Music Awards, which means a Caribbean cruise on the biggest, newest boat in the Carnival fleet. Carnival Cruise Lines, everybody! The official cruise line of your very good buddies Alvin and the Chipmunks! Why not ask Mom and Dad to book a Carnival cruise right now? On the motherfucking boat, Alvin finds himself chafing under Dave's needlessly arbitrary rules, like "don't break into the bridge and provide possibly life-threatening false information to the passengers", and ends up under strict lockdown to keep him from sending the boat and all souls onboard down to the bottom of the sea. Not strict enough, since Alvin is able to talk the other five, including an increasingly resentful Simon, into helping him climb on a kite to do some parasailing. This goes terribly wrong, and the chipmunks are thrown out to sea, quickly followed by Dave and former record impresario Ian Hawke (David Cross), forced to pay for his sins with the humiliation of wearing a giant pelican suit (likewise Cross).
The chipmunks end up on a tropical island, where Simon is bit by a toxic spider that drives him to think that he's an adventurous French lover, forcing Alvin to adopt the role of "the responsible one" for a change. Meanwhile, the only other inhabitant of the island is the human woman Zoe (Jenny Slate), who has gone nuts from eight or nine years on the island, and now fancies herself the leader of a menagerie containing a talking football, basketball, tennis ball, and so on. For those of you playing along at home, yes, Chipwrecked devotes an enormous portion of its running time to parodying Cast Away. A film older than the target audience for Chipwrecked itself, in 2011.
The whole gamut of ideas animating everything in Chipwrecked once it leaves the cruise ship is so patently, obviously unacceptable on any kind of storytelling level, as an extension of the characters developed [sic] through The Squeakquel and the first Alvin and the Chipmunks, I am obliged to assume that the filmmakers - including director Mike Mitchell, formerly of Deuce Bigalow: Male Giglolo, and writers Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, returning from The Squeakquel - were simply angry and wanted to ruin the project from within. Certainly, Jason Lee and especially David Cross aren't hiding their boredom and annoyance with the whole shtick of having to interact with noisome CGI rodents to be added later (Cross badmouthed the film extensively after production wrapped); of the onscreen cast, only Slate seems interested in trying to do anything like acting, and it goes spectacularly poorly for her, as she overplays her characters' oddball madness in tremendously non-funny ways while trying to talk to the "chipmunks" with a sugared-up giddiness that's just sad to watch.
And yet, precisely because of the derangement animating it, I don't hate Chipwrecked with the same "burn it to the ground and salt the ashes" fury that I feel for The Squeakquel. It is many horrible things, but at least Chipwrecked isn't lazy. Combining ancient tropes of desert island adventure tales with stillborn pop culture jokes, and a truly daunting number of wedged-in musical interludes, that's not something you can just snap your fingers and do. It takes real ingenuity to figure out how to stuff a horrible Lady Gaga cover into this scenario.
Like its predecessors, Chipwrecked openly telegraphs its disinterest in the mental well-being of the children in its target audience, though with a much more aggressive edge this time: The Squeakquel is a contemptuous film, but Chipwrecked is almost enraged, cycling through one absurd, hallucinatory plot development after the next, tossing out its surrealistically bad jokes without slowing down or pausing, apparently trying to baffle its viewership into a catatonic state from the sheer random, discontinuous illogic of what's happening. Nothing of what happens makes sense, and the plot developments could hardly be more arbitrary, or flag how much they know that they're arbitrary; the CGI is lovingly, exactly detailed to show off just how ugly and gross the character design and animation is. It is awful, hateworthy cinema, not just stupid but eager to behave even more unnecessarily stupid than seems natural. But it is absolutely the farthest thing from boring, and for this franchise, and this genre, that actually feels like a kind of triumph.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 2011
-During the pinnacle year for digital 3-D, Martin Scorsese directs the love letter to film technology, Hugo
-The Fast and the Furious franchise of racing movies is reborn as a car-based caper film series in Fast Five
-Producer John Aglialoro's adaptation of the first third Atlas Shrugged is a big enough hit to guarantee two sequels, or something
Elsewhere in world cinema in 2011
-During the pinnacle year for digital 3-D, Wim Wenders directs the dance documentary Pina, perhaps the most perfect use of the new medium to that point
-Asghar Farhadi's A Seperation brilliantly reminds everyone that Iranian cinema exists
-Hungarian icon Tarr Béla retires with the apocalyptic The Turin Horse