The Lonely Island boys offer up a fresh, Roger Rabbit-caliber tale on the classic Disney critters.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. For the latest example of this phenomenon, notice how, 34 years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit? changed movies forever, moviegoers are getting another comedic mystery hinging on live-action humans interacting with famous cartoon characters. The shadow of Zemeckis’ revolutionary blend of filmmaking styles looms large over its modern-day thematic successor, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.
Based on the 1990s animated TV show of the same name, Rescue Rangers director Akiva Schaffer has a plan to ensure that this feature isn’t just a Xerox of Roger Rabbit. Rather than channeling classic noirs, this new motion picture adheres to the rapid-fire meta-humor of Schaffer’s work with The Lonely Island or a Phil Lord and Chris Miller kids movie. The result is something that can’t touch either Eddie Valiant or Emmet Brickwoski but does prove to be plenty amusing in its own right.
The meta-angle of Rescue Rangers is immediately apparent in a prologue where viewers get to see Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) meeting as kids before becoming close friends who headlined the original Rescue Rangers TV show. When Dale’s attempts to start a solo acting career get the program canceled, these two chipmunks go their separate ways. Their separation lasts for decades until they unite once again in response to their former co-star Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) mysteriously going missing.
This cheese-obsessed rodent vanishing is seemingly connected to a string of recent incidents where famous cartoon characters have disappeared. With the cops, including Rescue Rangers devotee Ellie Whitfield (KiKi Layne), stuck at a dead-end in pursuing possible suspects, Chip and Dale are called in to track down who’s responsible for kidnapping Jack. Though their strained dynamic is more apparent than ever, these former buddies will need to concentrate on saving the day, while audiences will be soaked in a barrage of references to (and cameos from) pop culture writ large.
Though not as funny as the Lonely Island music videos for tunes like “Motherlover” or “Spring Break Anthem”, Rescue Rangers gets a lot of its entertainment from channeling the same kind of unpredictable lunacy. Much like how Abraham Lincoln could just show up with a Christmas goose at the end of Hot Rod, so too can sock puppets, references to “Muppet fights”, or rapping snakes randomly appear within the comic tapestry of Rescue Rangers. Not all these gags land, but the constant barrage of new stabs at jokes or pop culture references are most effective.
Their screenplay also takes a very smart move from Roger Rabbit and The LEGO Movie in wisely keeping most established characters (outside of ones from the original Rescue Rangers show) as either background figures or cameos. Instead, they’ll create original characters that reflect on bigger pop culture phenomena, but with a fun little spin, Take, for instance, amusing creations like Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons), a police chief modeled after Gumby whose animation nicely channels stop-motion artistry.
This approach largely avoids turning every frame of Rescue Rangers into a nostalgia-fueled game of Where’s Waldo. It also goes hand-in-hand with how Gregor and Mand are largely interested in taking familiar figures or names and then twisting them into something new. LEGOs aren’t just randomly name-dropped here, for example, they’re referenced on a billboard advertising a movie called LEGO Les Miserables while an appearance from Dobby the House-Elf is restricted to just the character appearing on a Gucci billboard.
But the film’s references to pop culture are a little smarter and sneakeir than you usually get elsewhere, more in the vein of The Simpsons‘ “Stop the Planet of the Apes. I Want to Get Off!” than Space Jam: A New Legacy. (An especially hysterical cameo character voiced by Tim Robinson is maybe the most effective example.) Thankfully, not all of the humor is rooted in references to older pop culture; Rescue Rangers makes sure there are tons of highly amusing standalone jokes in here, like a skillfully timed moment involving two evil henchmen in a hot tub, that doesn’t just rely on referencing Shrek or He-Man.
While the writing avoids becoming an Ernest Cline novel in terms of how it approaches referencing pop culture, the screenplay struggles more in making the character-based drama work. The more formulaic narrative template may open up more room for wacky gags, but too often it feels like the ludicrous premise of Rescue Rangers is taking the safe route in terms of storytelling. Whether it’s the roads Chip and Dale’s fractured relationship travels down or the eventual mystery behind whose been kidnapping toons, this story a disappointing habit of going for the familiar.
It’s just as funny for adults as it will be for youngsters.
Worse, it’ll often justify these predictable developments by having characters reference their derivative nature. Lampshading unchallenging narratives doesn’t automatically justify their presence. The attempts to mimic-hand drawn animation through digital means, in the vein of the Tom and Jerry movie, are similarly underwhelming. Characters like Chip and Monterey Jack never look quite right rendered in three dimensions while anytime these characters have to pick up a CG object, the dissonance looks off and not in a way that feels intentional.
It’s a shame these elements don’t work, because other aspects of the visual effects stick the landing quite well. Characters emulating the look of vintage hand-drawn animation styles, like a talking house straight out of the 1940s or a background figure who seems to have wandered away from a Herge comic, are fantastically realized. There are also great swaths of practical sets and real locations, which make for a fun contrast with their zany cartoon inhabitants and lend a tangible quality to an amusingly over-the-top story.
On paper, Rescue Rangers sounds like another descent into modern pop culture Hell, one where movies indoctrinate kids from the get-go to be as indebted to the past and nostalgia as Gary King from The World’s End. It’s just as funny for adults as it will be for youngsters, while also carrying more than a whiff of the hilarious creative spirit Schaffer cultivated in his work with The Lonely Island. You probably won’t go nuts for it, but it’s certainly a fair bit better than other films of this ilk.
Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers find the wheres and whys and whos on Disney+ starting May 19th.