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Alvin and the Chipmunks

Fox // PG // November 4, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted November 18, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
If you're old enough to remember actual record players with turntables, you're probably old enough to have experimented with the various speeds available. It was fun making people slow as molasses on 16 RPM or, conversely, as fast as, well, chipmunks, on 45 or even 78 RPM. However Ross Bagdasarian Sr. managed to figure out he could make regular singers sound like furry little rodent Caruso's is anyone's guess, but he did, forging an entertainment empire that has lasted and prospered for an incredible 40 years. Alvin and the Chipmunks, the latest installment in this multi-decade epic, removes the characters from their totally animated universe and mixes decent enough CGI with some frankly pretty shoddy looking live action that will delight most youngsters while leaving most adults looking around for the nearest discarded turntable with which they can properly entertain themselves.

Jason Lee is on hand as Chipmunk keeper Dave Seville in this outing. Alvin attempts to give some new backstory for the mayhem minded trio that comes to live with a not so successful songwriter. The film posits Seville as a struggling musician with a pre-existing, but never very well defined, relationship with Jett Records, and its obsequious head honcho, Ian (David Cross). When Dave stumbles home with the chipmunks in tow (unbeknownst to him, of course), it sets off a supposedly madcap chain of events that ultimately morphs the trio into the biggest singing siblings since Hansen or The Jonas Brothers. Through a serious of misunderstandings, the chipmunks feel like Dave doesn't want them anymore, setting up the putative villainy of Ian, who takes them in and works them ragged.

Part of the problem with this iteration of Alvin is that nothing much surprising happens. This is a movie that seems to have been written by a machine, with every jot and tittle completely predictable, down to the heart warming ending. It would have been fun to have seen this Alvin liven things up a bit, shaking up the concept at least a little, since the opportunities of CGI certainly meant the sky was the limit. As it stands, this version plays like a slightly better than average television movie, with some fun sight gags, and an appealing lead performance by Lee. The voice work on the chipmunks is seamlessly handed to a new generation (including Justin Long, the "Mac" half of the hilarious John Hodgman PC vs. Mac commercials), with a reworking of the Chipmunks' timeless Christmas song. There are also some more lamentable side trips into quasi-hip hop land, which would have worked much better had they been played for laughs.

The CGI in this film is fine, in unremarkable. Each of the chipmunks is nicely rendered, with fine character detail differentiating each of the three. Where this film really lacks visual style, though, is in its unexpectedly dowdy live action settings. This is one ugly looking film, with blanched color at times and an unappealing overall look that keeps it from being the eye candy that kid-centric films usually aim for.

This is no doubt being planned as merely the first outing for a new live-action blended with CGI Alvin franchise. This was a fairly substantial worldwide hit, so chances are good we'll be seeing several more chipmunk films down the line. Hopefully they'll take a few more chances and give the adults a little more to hang their entertainment hopes on. As it stands, this Alvin is pure kiddie-fare, and, as such, will certainly keep the younger folk entertained for 90 minutes.


As mentioned above, Alvin is a pretty cheap looking film, though it's offered in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. Colors at times are pretty bad (noticably in the opening forest section, where the greens are virtually nonexistent). Contrast and black levels are servicable, nothing more, with the CGI competent if uninspired. Kids aren't going to care, and if you're not a videophile, you probably won't either, but this is not a great looking film, which I suppose the transfer reproduces beautifully, so to speak.

The DD 5.1 mix seems like a bit of overkill for a film of this modest ambition, and indeed rear channel use is minimal. The soundtrack is nonetheless very nimble, with good clarity in the extreme upper ranges which of course constitute the bulk of the chipmunks' spoken and sung worlds. There are also Spanish and French 2.0 mixes available, as well as subtitles in all the soundtrack languages.

This new "Christmas Edition" offers the addition of the Chipmunks' Christmas music video. There is also another music video, as well as two deleted scenes, a "Behind the Nuts" 'munkumentary' (where castmates wax on about the supposedly real chipmunks), "The Dudes Behind the Munks," detailing the voice work (a piece that is actually funnier than the film in several places), as well as a 21 minute dance-move special called "Get Munk'd." For the really intrepid, there's a "live" concert by mascot-sized Chipmunks as the Chula Vista Mall (stop laughing), a "funk mixer" where you get to experiment with multi-tracking (whoever designed this "game" forgot to turn off the ubiquitous still screen soundtrack, which is completely confusing when you're trying to decide what instrument to listen to), as well as theatrical trailers. One annoying thing about these extras was the inconsistency in aspect ratios--every other one was enhanced 1.78:1, with the intervening ones either unenhanced 1.78:1 or full frame. What gives?

Final Thoughts:
This is a by the numbers trip through Alvin and the Chipmunks territory. It has no irony or postmodern sensibility (which are probably good things), but likewise very little vivacity or even real humor (most definitely bad things). Kids younger than 12 or so may get a passing kick out of it, so I suggest you Rent It for an evening of kid-friendly fun.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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