SAN ANTONIO — There’s a lot at stake in “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.” Toons are going missing. A years-long friendship is on the rocks. And given its chief collaborators form two-thirds of master satirist cohort The Lonely Island, the movie practically represents the last, best hope for a Disney-adjacent reboot to go meta while retaining some sliver of genuine self-examination.
Director Akiva Schaffer and company make the most of their shot. Powered by an endless carousel of references not only to familiar intellectual property but to the (oftentimes clumsy) handling of those franchises, “Chip ‘n Dale” comes closer than most any movie of its ilk to honoring the stylistic potpourri of Robert Zemeckis’ “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (even as it also more or less confirms no one will ever reach the verve of that classic’s anarchic filmmaking highs).
The new live-action/animation hybrid Disney+ offering doesn’t reimagine the adventurous yestercentury duo so much as riff on their place in the pop culture pantheon, rendering them unlikely heroes in a time when Hollywood has sidestepped heroism for self-mutilation. One of the smarter bits in “Chip ‘n Dale” – a movie that has more self-awareness in its little paw than all of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” or the recent “Tom and Jerry” film – literalizes the torturous media landscape, putting beloved characters like “The Little Mermaid’s” Flounder at risk of being disfigured and recycled for the bootleg pipeline. Nothing about these scenes is particularly grotesque, of course (the PG-rated movie is still a family affair, though parents will catch onto some jokes that’ll fly over the youngsters’ heads), but “Chip ‘n Dale” is already doing more than most by acknowledging the inherent grotesquerie of reboot culture.
Not only is that recognition refreshing, but it allows writing partners Dan Gregor and Doug Mand the humility to dispense of anything remotely regarding humility. I guffawed at one early moment that had an animated unicorn throwing up a stream of rainbows, I appreciated that Dale’s sudden 3-D-ification is chalked up as a conscious decision in changing times and I nodded in furious recognition when Chip laments at how “they always have to make the cartoons rap.” Relevance is a thing to be reckoned with for all the familiar faces we come across in “Chip ‘n Dale” – be they 2-D, 3-D, stop-motion or black-and-white – and it may not be a coincidence that two lesser-known Disney furballs are the ones here shining a light on just how feverish the Mouse House’s pursuit of enduring relevance is (to say nothing of the rest of Hollywood).
It also helps to have a voice cast as varied as the one Schaffer was provided with, including a perfectly pitched J.K. Simons as Captain Putty, Will Arnett as the menacing Sweet Pete and Seth Rogen making a fairly solid case for someone to explore an animated Seth Rogenverse. A committed KiKi Layne plays Ellie, the primary human accompanying Chip and Dale through the movie’s mystery, and if you think you’ve been scarred by live-action Ugly Sonic for the last time, “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Tim Robinson implores you to think again.
The movie is sweet, silly and scathing enough that it’s a pleasure to imagine industry suits squirming while Andy Samberg and John Mulaney do their Andy Samberg and John Mulaney best as two tiny chipmunks wisecracking about the state of contemporary entertainment, though I’m skeptical about the movie poking Batfleck in the side while the MCU, the biggest perpetrator of movie-sameness crimes, gets off scot free. Also absent from the hijinks is a certain zippiness that you’d expect from a story as conceptually dizzying as this one, and on one or two too many occasions “Chip ‘n Dale” uses self-referentiality as an excuse to cash in on cliché.
But knowingly cliché is better than naively cynical. And when “Chip ‘n Dale’s” motor is fully running – when its tongue finds extra room to plant itself in the massive cheeks of its chipmunk costars – it’s like a bygone Disney era has been resurrected to wag its finger at the worst aspects about the current one. It’s about time, too; someone had to do it.
"Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" is rated PG for mild action and rude/suggestive humor. It's now streaming on Disney+. Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Starring: Andy Samberg, John Mulaney, KiKi Layne, Will Arnett.
Directed by Akiva Schaffer, written by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand.
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