It doesn't take singing forest creatures to explain to the audience that "Alvin and the Chipmunks" is a fantasy. After all, this is a picture that wants us to believe that there's a thriving recording industry and people can still be excited by new music. Yeah, right.
Dave Seville (Jason Lee, paying off his house) is a struggling songwriter searching for his big break with Jett Record honcho, Ian (David Cross). Into his life come Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, three sass-mouth chipmunks who look to Dave as a father figure. Teaching these pint-sized rapscallions a Christmas song, Dave and the Chipmunks score a major hit. Now a hot pop music commodity, Ian tries to steal the Chipmunks away from Dave with promises of fame and toys. Teaming up with his ex, Claire (Cameron Richardson), Dave hits the road to prevent the exploitation of the Chipmunks and bring them home.
The enduring musical sensation that started in 1958 finally has its first big screen, live-action offering in this bizarrely conceived misfire of a motion picture. It's not an envious task taking something sugary and innocent and offering it to the fickle tastes of today's young text-message culture. The end product looks like the result of one half of the production crew digging for gold by bringing the Chipmunks into disheartening hip-hopeless land, while the other half is desperately trying to preserve the kindly, timeless appeal of these creatures that many parents recall fondly.
The headaches come right away from director Tim Hill, who is assigned the task of bringing the Chipmunks to life. Having already been down the cartoon chute with his 2006 "Garfield" sequel, Hill appears befuddled by what his job should be. It's a very static, unconvincing piece of filmmaking, and Hill seems more interested in designing the slapstick special effect shots than maintaining a smart comic rhythm, or even supporting the performances. Poor Jason Lee is lost here, trying to drum up interest in acting against CGI (and poorly-rendered CGI at that), but always unsure of himself, especially with the classic "Allllviiiinnnn!" holler. Hill isn't invested in the material, working like a bored factory floor employee glumly counting the slowly ticking minutes until he's done.
Even when the screenplay proceeds into some tiring, mechanical areas of conflict, allows David Cross more screentime than Lee, and pimps the Chipmunks out to the latest pop hits, there's still the basic entertainment value of watching these furry characters execute their shenanigans. The Chipmunk interactions are the best part of an otherwise lackluster film: the mischievous brothers boppin' around Dave's house making a mess, inhaling frozen waffles, and amusing themselves with their singing. Kids will assuredly gulp down the helium-voiced antics of Alvin (voiced unrecognizably by Justin Long) and the boys, and there are plenty of moments where parents might not mind the nonsense either. That is, when the Chipmunks aren't eating each other's feces. Heaven forbid there should be a family film that didn't resort to potty humor.
Soon the Chipmunks hit the big time, and the film trots out its glossy performance sequences and touring montages. By then, the film has run out of gas, and it's only filler from there to achieve the crucial 90-minute running time. "Alvin" isn't nearly as bad as Fox's marketing has been threatening, but it isn't a delight either. This is picture in desperate need of a comedic vision above the mediocre family entertainment status quo, otherwise this is a glorified direct-to-video offering.
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