Popular children’s cartoon Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers was a successful re-imagining of two legacy characters from Disney animation. A new feature film of the same name, which premiered recently on Disney+, re-imagines those characters once again. Despite some clever jokes and a general sense of self-awareness, a particularly cynical streak seems to let the film down. It will have its fans, but there’s little chance of it being well-remembered.
Decades after the cancellation of the television series Rescue Rangers, estranged cartoon chipmunks Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) are reunited by the disappearance of friend and former co-star Monterey Jack (Eric Bana). A trail of clues leads them to an underground criminal operation that kidnaps cartoon characters and forces them to work in counterfeit films.
There is an enormous Who Framed Roger Rabbit-shaped problem that looms over this new film, which has been directed by Akiva Schaffer from a script by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand. That earlier production, released in 1988, was a bona-fide masterpiece. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it deconstructed Hollywood cartoons in a manner that was both insanely clever but also deeply respectful. It celebrated as much as it mocked, and it took the idea of animated character co-existing with the real world to hilarious but logical extremes. It was also a technical marvel, boasting not only ground-breaking techniques in blending live-action and animation but also some of the best hand-drawn animation in Hollywood history. Chip & Dale is unable to escape comparisons with Zemeckis’ work, and it suffers by comparison at every turn.
For one thing, the film is bizarrely mean-spirited. The audience of Roger Rabbit revelled in seeing Daffy and Donald Duck engaged in piano-based warfare, because it authentically reproduced both characters as they were originally envisaged. Chip & Dale re-imagines a raft of characters as unwillingly retired has-beens. The image of a pot-boiled and unshaven middle-aged Peter Pan does not enchant or impress; neither do cameos like a kidnapped and tortured Flounder from The Little Mermaid. Where Roger Rabbit celebrated, Chip & Dale demeans for cheap, poorly-gained laughs – and all too often it fails to generate the laugh at all. While there are effective jokes and comedy bits peppered through the film, they are outweighed by elements that simply don’t work. In the end that kills its chances to impress.
The film finds its strongest footing when mocking the dreadful early 2000s days of sub-standard CGI animation, via a visit to a literal “Uncanny Valley” and an encounter with a glassy-eyed and unconvincing fantasy dwarf (Seth Rogen). The cynical meanness remains, but at least in these sequences it feels like a valid target. Elsewhere the film really is just flat-out mean.
There was great potential here, but it is largely wasted. There is still potential in a Rescue Rangers revival, akin to Disney’s effective new take on Ducktales in recent years, but it really does feel like this movie has blown its chances.