Well before Doctor Strange strove to interject a multiverse with insanity, Robert Zemeckis willingly did the same thing, uniting animated characters from different IP streams in his comic masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 34 years later, the spirit of that chaotic crossover carnage has rubbed off on an incarnate film that, well before Disney+ or the pandemic or other extraneous factors changing the landscape, would’ve had a sword dangling above its chances at the box office.
Loosely inspired by a legendary pillar of The Disney Afternoon, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers celebrates its source material, but doles out a rampant sense of unfiltered energy mirroring Roger’s ebullience, albeit with the coziness of Ready Player One as opposed to the utter corporate recklessness of Space Jam 2. If the plot were not so thin, or so pulled off the mark when stacked up against even the weakest episodes of the old show, I’d have gone a little more gangbusters for this strange concoction. One that embraces some sense of pulp detective caper with a Jump Street lift, nailing that effectively with Brian Tyler’s (Scream) bombastic score. All before turning needlessly distracted by the desire of causing trouble.
And it’s tough to say just who the bigger troublemaker would be? Chip (Andy Samberg) or Dale (John Mulaney)? The pair had an inseparable bond going back to middle school in the early 80s, when Dale was the outcast transferred in from parts unknown. And Chip, his only comrade amid mild ostracism. Speed running through their evolution as a small town comedic duo, they take a chance on Hollywood, climbing up the ladder with small roles before landing the Rescue Rangers series, and winning the hearts of wide audiences. The fun ride wouldn’t last for long, with Dale attempting his own failed show, causing a career implosion, and a severance of their friendship lasting three decades.
Fast forward to present day, Dale’s a mild mannered insurance broker, Chip’s still clinging to whatever stardom remains, appearing at conventions, though making no secret of an obvious CG plastic surgery. The pair find themselves in the same room again when co-star Monterey Jack (a rather jovial Eric Bana) turns up missing. As it turns out, the cheese addiction was more than a character quirk, it was a finance-wrecking habit. Up to the point where he was deep in debt with the shrewd Sweet Pete (Will Arnett). Thus opens up a tale of crime and corruption, the chipmunk pair working closely with LAPD detective Ellie (KiKi Layne) and to discover Sweet Pete’s overall angle, one connected to a string of disappearances involving notable characters a little past their A-movie prime.
It’s fair game for director and fellow Lonely Island player Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), casually reworking the standard detective story into something a bit more off the cuff and mature. Perhaps overly so for the general family crowd, and equally off the mark for those more nostalgic fans looking for a faithful adaptation. In his hands, and those of screenwriters Dan Gregor & Doug Mand (Dolittle), they’re all rather overeager to give the source material a meta makeover, eschewing a traditional reboot or re-adaptation, landing somewhere in the middle. It does come at the sacrifice of perhaps a more Hollywood fame and decline tale, hitting a niche corner for madcap action in a realm where live action and animated characters coexist a bit more comfortably than in other films. Almost as if the formula has reached a point of relaxed normalcy.
Unfazed by those mild shortfalls, Schaffer plays it all so loose and rapid-fire, enabling both Samberg and Mulaney to be just as unfettered in their performances. Here, the characters are separated from their chipmunk actors, average guys staying productive before they’re nudged back to face the past, unchecked resentment notwithstanding. After twenty minutes of establishing their motivations (and the apparent plastic surgery allegory), no longer confined to sped-up vocals, that sense of regularity elevates their gameness to play for comebacks over basic quips.
In that process, nothing is left to change, for one poking on common detective or cartoon tropes, such as the corny charm of laughing to a fade out on the last cheesy line. And then another making blatant jabs on media trends. Arnett’s grizzled baddie is the epitome of washed up child stars shifting to the dark side, his lackey Bob (Seth Rogen at his most tongue-in-cheek) a vivid, if not also slightly shameless representation of uncanny valley RPGs. And in the vast Where’s Waldo-esque game of looking for all the in-jokes, what stands out most cryptically for the incomprehensible tone is Ugly Sonic (a very winning Tim Robinson), a parody of what the internet would outcry with the video game IP’s big screen debut.
Rescue Rangers is so close to being a teen/young adult action comedy, consumed in a PG wrapper and adorned with some very stylish animation, blending multiple styles with a minimal live action template. Layne’s the only human performer a lot of the time, staying level and professional amid the detective duo. And her boss, a claymation captain named Putty (J.K. Simmons). What Schaffer sets up for this character, without giving anything away, delivers a few unexpected scene-stealers, with Simmons shadowing his cast mates, Even Mulaney’s sense of subdued outrage which holds its own versus Samberg’s overeager masking of a rocky career.
Schaffer knows how to play the tightrope game, balancing emotional arcs with a potpourri of other ideas. While the story does stop very short of embracing the thematic genius of exploring deep seeded character flaws, its overcompensation does more than necessary to raise the entertainment value. As well as the issue of distraction, as every single random cameo manages to deviate from important matters. Moving a mile a second with all its moving parts, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers fully envelops the viewer in a state of Meta bliss, albeit struggling to move beyond that gimmickry. Its focus is off the charts, and yet its heart is very much in a comfortable groove, worthy of growing on future viewings. I enjoyed the thrill of it, even when its structure ultimately failed to impress. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is currently streaming on Disney+; rated PG for mild action and rude/suggestive humor; 97 minutes.