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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Embarrassing confession time: As a child, I had a lot of albums by Alvin and the Chipmunks. In particular, I remember listening often to “Chipmunk Punk,” in which they covered 80’s alt rock, and “Urban Chipmunk,” which somehow made country music seem more tolerable to me. I’m not sure why I thought these albums were so great, except that I had an overall fondness for novelty records. So I did not go into the new movie Alvin and the Chipmunks with a chip on my shoulder. This is the kind of film that’s very easy for a critic to criticize; it’s a straight-up-the-middle attempt to create a franchise. There’s no pretense of art here, just a desire to exploit the titular characters’ popularity for maximum financial gain. Nostalgia counts for something, I suppose, so while I wouldn’t exactly recommend this thing, I at least found it kind of innocuous.

The film does not start off promisingly. In the opening scene, we find Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in a tree, singing the annoyingly ubiquitous Daniel Powter hit “Bad Day.” (If that’s not enough to make you want to run for the hills, I don’t know what is.) When their tree is cut down, they head elsewhere, eventually ending up in the home of struggling musician David Seville (Jason Lee). Once Dave wraps his mind around the fact that three computer generated musically-inclined rodents are in his home, he decides to present them to the head of his record label, Ian Hawk (David Cross). Surprisingly, Dave never stops to wonder where these chipmunks learned such pop culture favorites as “Funkytown.” Or where they learned to read, for that matter.

Hawk has dollar signs dancing in his eyes, and he sends Alvin and the boys on a whirlwind concert tour, complete with interviews, photo shoots, and music video productions. He bribes them with all the toys and junk food a critter could ever want. Dave, meanwhile, would prefer that they get rest, eat right, and perform under the supervision of a mature, responsible adult. A figurative battle for their souls breaks out between record exec and concerned parental figure.

Here’s where Alvin and the Chipmunks got marginally more interesting for me. At some subtle level, the film is commenting on the way the entertainment business exploits – then spits out – young talent. Under Ian Hawk’s never-say-no-to-anything tutelage, the chipmunks stand to end up just like furrier versions of Lindsay Lohen and Britney Spears. The movie is clear that, while a glitzy show-biz lifestyle might be tons of fun, it’s a highway to hell without someone looking after your best interests. What a good message to put in front of kids, especially in a time when too many children’s films - like the appalling Bratz - make it seem like celebrity is the cure-all for whatever ails you.

When you stop and think about it, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Alvin and the Chipmunks. Basically, creator Ross Bagdasarian figured out how to speed up recorded voices so they sounded squeaky, and then he created a trio of barely distinguishable characters to accompany this unusual sound. Nevertheless, it struck a chord with millions of children.

It still does. I think Alvin and the Chipmunks will be a slam-dunk with the little ones. During my screening of it, they could be heard laughing and carrying on with delight at each fart or poop-eating joke. (For some reason, family films can’t be without a few bodily fluid gags these days.) The music is bouncy, the visuals are lively, and there’s always something happening so that hyperactive little minds won’t grow bored.

Parents will, like me, probably find the picture underwhelming but painless. Hearing sped-up voices is funny when you’re six; as an adult, it has considerably less appeal, especially when supplemented with a hip-hop beat. At least Jason Lee, as always, is a charming guy to watch, and David Cross manages to get in some funny moments, although I felt like he wanted to break loose and make an edgier, R-rated version of this story. Now that I’d pay to see!

( 1/2 out of four)

Alvin and the Chipmunks is rated PG for some mild rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Alvin and the Chipmunks

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