'Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers' Riffs on 'Roger Rabbit,' but Has No Bite
The Disney+ movie is a missed opportunity.
It's still exhilarating to watch 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The Robert Zemeckis movie was truly radical, pulling off a bit of magic in pairing a zany movie star rabbit with a jaded private investigator played by Bob Hoskins, and plunging the audience into a world where cartoon creatures and humans and everything in between co-exist for a sublime mashup of grim noir pastiche and hand-drawn animation. The gags are classic cartoon fare—as elemental as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, both of whom make an appearance. It's accessible but violent stuff, made more downright scary by the bug-eyed villain Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd. (That poor shoe.)
Now we have Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers, which takes the Roger Rabbit formula mashing up live action and animation propels it into our current intellectual property-crazed era. It mostly works until it doesn't. Chip 'n Dale is both a frequently charming diversion that will play great on Disney+ and a real missed opportunity. It somehow defies the IP exhaustion associated with nearly every cultural product these days and plays right into it.
Instead of offering up yet another remake of a bona fide classic like Cinderella or The Lion King, this time Disney has gone to a different well. Though the two titular chipmunks made their debuts in the 1940s, they are best known for their Disney Channel series, which began airing in 1989. This quasi-reboot, directed by The Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer, stars John Mulaney as Chip and Andy Samberg as Dale, now rendered as failed Hollywood actors who once were the stars of a Disney Channel series called Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Chip has left the business and now sells insurance, while Dale has gotten a CG surgery and makes his living going to fan conventions. When their former co-star Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) goes missing, Chip and Dale must track down a villainous gangster named Sweet Pete (Will Arnett), an overgrown Peter Pan who has been kidnapping toons and physically altering them so they can star in bootleg versions of their old projects.
The good thing is that Mulaney and Samberg are both inherently very funny. Samberg gives Dale his familiar goofball energy, and Mulaney's deadpan is hilarious coming out of the mouth of a tiny rodent. As was the case in Roger Rabbit, Chip 'n Dale has found a way to incorporate animated characters that aren't in the Disney canon, and, initially, there's a bit of clever subversion at play. Dale's con compatriots are a bunch of cast-off misfits, including "Ugly Sonic," the discarded, tooth-forward design for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, here voiced by Tim Robinson. Elsewhere, it might tickle you to find Chip and Dale crossing paths with figures from not very kid-friendly shows like South Park and Big Mouth, or taking a trip to the uncanny valley filled with the cats from Cats and the kind of unsettling creations from Robert Zemeckis movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf.
But the screenplay from Dan Gregor and Doug Mand doesn't really do anything with these references. Yes, there are plenty of jokes about the dead eyes of Pete's medieval henchman voiced by Seth Rogen, but no real comment on what that kind of CGI animation wrought. The overarching threat—bootlegged movies—seems beamed in from another time, before the internet, and it yields a rote third act that loses Mulaney and Samberg's dynamic in favor of bland action. The sharper version of Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers might have offered a meta commentary about corporations like, ahem, Disney dragging out lesser-loved characters to squeeze them for any nostalgic juice they might have. But that's not Rescue Rangers, which sidesteps any actual acknowledgement that maybe the new bootlegging is just never-ending streaming content.
Instead, Chip 'n Dale feels weirdly neutered, which is an odd thing to say about a Disney product, but makes sense when it invites such obvious (though probably unfair) comparisons to Roger Rabbit, one of the bizarre masterpieces of children's entertainment— but it does ask for it. And for as much as I had a fine time watching the latest straight-to-Disney+ product, I found myself wanting to click through the app to find the classic. And maybe that's just what Disney wants, a cycle of entertainment that reminds you of an older, better product keeping you in its grasp.