It’s no real surprise that someone was prepped to poke fun at Hollywood’s increasingly aggressive remaking, reinicio y remezcla de IP cubierta de polvo, but it’s perhaps more of a surprise to find the joke coming from inside the house. Not just any house either but the House of Mouse, arguably the most egregious offender of all.
But the unending sift of studios trawling though their back catalogues (this year promises new spins on Gremlins, Three Men and a Baby, Father of the Bride, Frasier, Scooby Doo, Night at the Museum, Hellraiser, Matilda and many, many others), has resulted in an unusual satire, made even more unusual given the unlikely packaging. The relatively un-hyped release of a live-action-animation-hybrid movie based on late 80s series Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, offloaded on to Disney+, seemed at first glance to be more of the same. But inside the Trojan horse of a lazily inevitable kids adventure is a surprisingly sharp and detailed comedy. It’s not quite on par with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the film it undoubtedly wants to be likened to, but it’s infinitely better than it had any right to be.
The original series, which lasted for three seasons on the Disney Channel, was based on one of those strange fever-dream set-ups that kids accepted with unquestioning immediacy. Two semi-clothed chipmunks ran a detective agency with two mice – one Australian, cheese-obsessed, and one blond, object of numerous crushes – and a housefly. In the world of the movie, the characters were all just actors, living and working in a society where humans and cartoons co-exist. Chip (voiced by John Mulaney) and Dale (voiced by Andy Samberg) were childhood best friends who fell out after Hollywood greed and ambition drove them apart and years later, they both live very different, yet very lonely, vidas. Chip works in insurance and dotes on his pet dog while Dale desperately clings on to his old fame, haunting fan conventions, waiting for a reboot.
When their old friend and co-worker Monterey Jack goes missing, the pair are reunited and uncover a horrifying plot that sees well-known animated characters kidnapped, redrawn and bootlegged to be sold overseas and forced into terrible off-brand movies (The Little Mermaid becomes The Small Fish Lady, Beauty and the Beast becomes Beauty and the Cursed Dog Man etc).
What’s most surprising about a mostly rather surprising film is just how intricate the world-building is, director Akiva Schaffer, of Lonely Island fame, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, putting far more thought and effort into the specifics of one scene that most mainstream film-makers would put into their entire movie. It’s stuffed to the edges with pop culture references, sight gags and sly jabs at the industry but falls short of the brain-dead overload that’s tanked adjacent examples. Last year’s one-two gut-punch of Free Guy and Space Jam 2 showed two studios chucking everything they had into a blender, both needlessly packed with often bizarre references to other films and shows also available on Disney and Warner’s respective streamers. It reached parody-level (did one of Ken Russell’s nuns from The Devils De Verdad need to be watching LeBron James play basketball with Bugs Bunny?) and the team behind Chip ’n Dale seem highly aware of this, lightly ribbing the headache-inducing state of entertainment (posters for Meryl Streep as Mr Doubtfire and Fast and Furious Babies litter background billboards).
There’s also a great deal of fun to be had at the expense of animated progress with Dale undergoing surgery to look more CGI, an amusing trip to the “uncanny valley” where the pair encounter ghoulish motion capture characters from the 2000s and a scene-stealing cameo from Ugly Sonic, AKA the grotesque, fan-loathed version of the character from the recent film’s original trailer. It’s all very much aimed at a savvy thirtysomething audience, while remaining kid-friendly and while younger viewers might find it all a little incomprehensible at times, the many Disney cameos and the frantic pace should ensure at least some interest.
Despite the stacked cast of comedians and comedic actors (as well as Mulaney and Samberg, there are voice roles for Seth Rogen, Tim Robinson, Keegan Michael-Key and Will Arnett) the script feels a few punch-ups away from being quite as funny as it could have been. It’s more likely to produce some “oh yeah that’s smart” smiles than genuine laughter, still a little hemmed in by the Disney+-ness of it all. But what Gregor and Mand do manage is a neat balance of tone, the knowing satire never falling into self-referential smugness thanks to a healthy dose of both earnestness and a genuine affection for the source material.
Consider those low expectations truly rescued.