"The Chipmunks" Get A Makeover

Theodore, left, Alvin, center, and Simon, along with manager/songwriter Dave Seville, played by Jason Lee, background, in a scene from "Alvin and the Chipmunks." (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Rhythm & Hues) AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox

Are singing chipmunks really so different from Britney Spears?

In "Alvin and the Chipmunks," our furry little singing friends have been turned into something like tiny Justin Timberlakes. They use phrases like "'sup playa," perform with Madonna-style headset microphones and even suffer from that chronic tour-canceler: "exhaustion."

No, they don't enter rehab, run over paparazzi or suddenly shave off all their hair. But here, Alvin, Simon and Theodore are young pop stars, beholden to their songwriters and susceptible to the whims of label management.

"Alvin and the Chipmunks" is the latest attempt to revive a dormant cartoon franchise, this time by placing anatomically correct, CGI-animated chipmunks in a live-action film. They're voiced by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney, but they all might as well be the same sped-up audio effect originally voiced by Ross Bagdasarian Sr.


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Bagdasarian, who created the Chipmunks nearly 50 years ago and wrote their hit "The Christmas Song," died in 1972. But his son, Ross Jr., has brought Alvin and company to the big screen with director Tim Hill (a writer for "SpongeBob SquarePants" who helmed the 2006 flop "Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties").

"Alvin" revolves around the chipmunks -- a troublemaking bunch -- moving with ease and confidence from the wild to civilization. After their tree is chopped down and brought to Los Angeles, they are soon taken in by out-of-work musician Dave Seville (Jason Lee), who we first find asleep atop his keyboard.

Lee, the talented comedic actor of the TV series "My Name is Earl" and the film "Almost Famous," nearly has the eyebrow flexibility of Bruce Campbell. He does reasonably well considering he had to address most of his lines to the approximate positions of the chipmunks, who were later animated in.

But when Lee's finally called upon to yell the trademark "Alllllvin!" it feels like a forced whimper that only reminds us how stale the decades-old material is.

Seville is offset by music label executive Ian Hawk, played by David Cross. One of the funniest comedians around, Cross's credits include cult TV shows like "Arrested Development" and "Mr. Show with Bob and David."

Here, he's easily the best thing about the film, skewering music execs with awkward handshakes and lines like: "Dave, I'm going to pretend that I have a lunch to go to" -- after which he proceeds to do just that.

Seville and Cross's character (who has the chipmunks call him "Uncle Ian") eventually feud over what's best for their little stars, leading to predictable results.

The biggest failure of the film is the animation of the caroling critters, who are essentially without expression. The animators seemingly forgot to work on their eyes, possibly the most important element of bringing bushy-tailed rodents to life.

But in this bloody holiday season of murderous barbers, ruthless oilmen and harrowing Texan killers, where is a family to go? Even "The Golden Compass" has been painted by conservative Christian groups as something only heathens would attend.

No, the studios haven't made it easy for Christmas spirit this year, but families looking for distraction could do worse than the benign and kid-friendly humor of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" -- particularly because of Cross's performance.

Better yet, they could all sit down for six seconds and watch the real chipmunk star of 2007: the famed CGI-free "Dramatic Chipmunk" on YouTube.

"Alvin and the Chipmunks," a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated PG for some mild rude humor. Running time: 92 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


By Jake Coyle
  • CBSNews

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