Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2008)
If you look at the 10 highest grossing flicks of 2007, Alvin and the Chipmunks provides unquestionably the biggest surprise. An unassuming little animation/live-action hybrid update of the old David Seville characters came with little hype among many bigger hitters in the holiday season. Nonetheless, the flick surpassed virtually all expectations and made a stunning $215 million at the box office.
The vagaries of the “family film” market continue to confound me. Some believe audiences are so starved for relatively inoffensive material that almost anything in that category will score big bucks. However, this ignores he reams of quality “family friendly” efforts that tank. What made Alvin different? I have no idea, but something about it really appealed to mass audiences.
The flick introduces us to a trio of chipmunks: Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (voiced by Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (voiced by Jesse McCartney). When their home gets cut down to become a Christmas tree, they stay on it and end up delivered to the offices of Jett Records.
Dave Seville (Jason Lee) works as a songwriter, but he seems to have lost his muse. Record exec Ian Hawke (David Cross) – also an old college classmate – tells Dave to give us the cause because songs boast no commercial appeal.
Enter the talents of our homeless chipmunks. They stow away in a muffin basket Dave steals from the record company and freak him out when he discovers them. After a rough start, Dave discovers that the rodents can sing like nobody’s business and he hatches a plan to revive his career. Inspired by their dreams of a happy Christmas, Dave quickly churns out a number called “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Is Here)”. After some snarls, the tune rockets to the top of the charts and the chipmunks become a pop sensation. The movie follows their adventures and the inevitable snags along the way.
We constantly hear about how audiences crave family films. That seems to explain the success of Alvin, though it doesn’t tell us why some flicks of this sort prosper and others tank. What about Alvin turned it into a megahit while other family-oriented pictures bombed?
I’ll be darned if I know. I guess there existed an untapped market for computer animated rodents. Maybe crossover appeal worked here, as adults who grew up with the Chipmunks might want to share the nostalgia with their kids.
Those are some theories, but I really can’t figure out the answer, as I find little here to distinguish Alvin from most other family flicks out there. That makes it neither bad nor good – it’s just “there”, without a whole lot of spark to lead me to figure out why it turned into a smash.
On its own merits, Alvin presents a mildly entertaining spectacle. It throws a lot at us and hopes some of it will stick. Clearly kids will get more of a kick out of the gags than adults will, although the flick tries to fling a few nuggets in the vague direction of the parents in the audience. A few mildly sly references come along for the ride, but the vast majority of the comedy remains aimed firmly at the youngsters.
At least the actors occasionally help make things more palatable for the adults. Cross provides a reasonably weaselly and amusing turn as the sleazy record company exec, and we also find a short but amusing turn from Jane Lynch as Dave’s boss; I wish we got more of her. I like Lee as a presence, though I wouldn’t call him much of an actor; he shows his usual broad work here, and a few small laughs emerge.
Overall, however, Alvin comes across as a bland and forgettable flick. I find it hard to muster much to say about the movie just because it’s so relentlessly ordinary. It creates a minor distraction for 90 minutes and then completely leaves your mind.
Footnote: stick through the end credits for a look at Chipmunks album covers throughout the years.