This is one of those blessedly rare few times when I wish I had a giant corkboard and miles of differently colored yarns, because that’s what we really need to make any sense of how we got to where we are now.
Let’s start back in the 1940s and ’50s, the golden age of the Disney animated shorts with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and all the rest. In 1943, Bill Justice introduced Chip and Dale, a pair of squeaky-voiced chipmunks who’d vex the other characters — typically Pluto or Donald Duck — with their shenanigans. (Analogous to Speedy Gonzalez with Daffy Duck and Sylvester.) After their last cartoon short in 1956, Chip and Dale kept up a steady presence in Disney-licensed comics right up until the mid-’80s.
Then came 1988 and the advent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The film was a watershed accomplishment in cinema, a monumental tribute to the golden age of animation that blended cartoons and live actors to a degree that had never been done before. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the film had on modern-day VFX and what it did to revitalize the cartoon properties of Disney and WB. Incidentally, while Chip and Dale were planned to make cameo appearances along with the rest of the Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes rosters, their scene was cut from the final movie.
At roughly the same time, the fledgling Disney Channel was putting together what would eventually become its iconic “Disney Afternoon” cartoon lineup. Tad Stones initially proposed a TV series based on The Rescuers, one of those awkward ’70s releases made in the time immediately after Walt Disney’s passing, when the company didn’t really know what they were doing without their namesake visionary. Trouble was, Disney already had their own plans at relaunching those two heroic mice, and they weren’t going to put a completely different TV show into development while The Rescuers Down Under was well into production. One thing led to another and the project kept kicking around until Michael Eisner suggested swapping out Bernard and Bianca for another, more dormant pair of anthropomorphic rodents in the Disney catalog.
“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” went on to 65 episodes across three seasons. The series established a cherished place beside the likes of “DuckTales”, “Tale Spin”, “Darkwing Duck”, and “The Adventures of the Gummi Bears” as a touchstone of ’90s childhood. In the years since, the omnipresent Disney marketing machine has kept the show alive through comic books, video games, theme park appearances, and so on.
(Side note: As for The Rescuers Down Under, the movie turned out to be a critical smash and another nostalgic favorite among ’90s kids. Alas, it had the misfortune of premiering opposite Home Alone. The film tanked hard at the box office and Disney’s done nothing with The Rescuers since.)
Meanwhile, though Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was only growing more influential and beloved, Disney had an exceptionally difficult time capitalizing on that success. Roger Rabbit got a few animated short films, some comic books, and prominent theme park appearances (“Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin” has been the centerpiece of Mickey’s Toontown ever since it opened in Disneyland back in 1994.), but a full-fledged sequel proved elusive. Due to a myriad of script issues, budgetary concerns, and technical limitations, numerous attempts at getting a Roger Rabbit sequel never got off the ground.
Cut to 2014. Bob Hoskins passes away, and any hope of a proper Roger Rabbit sequel pretty much dies with him. More importantly, 20th Century Fox is making money hand over fist with their notorious “Alvin and the Chipmunks” relaunch, and Disney decides to ride those coattails. David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman — fresh off their success producing The Muppets — were hired to oversee a live-action/CGI “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” reboot, with short filmmaker Robert Rugan making his feature debut as the writer/director. Five years later, no progress had been made and the intended origin story for the Rescue Rangers fell apart.
Cut to 2019. This is where things get crazy.
The entire internet let out a collective “What the FUCK?!” with the announcement that Messrs. Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg had taken over the Rescue Rangers reboot. Nobody in their right minds could find the connection between The Lonely Island and Chip ‘n Dale. Writers Dan Gregor and Doug Mand (two of the most sought-after comedy writers in the game, coming off of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) helpfully explained that the film was being made as a spiritual successor to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In point of fact, Roger Rabbit himself makes an appearance six minutes in, to establish firmly and immediately that the film is literally set in the same continuity as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
In summary, somebody couldn’t make the sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that they wanted, so they turned it into a relaunch of a series that was itself made because somebody couldn’t make the Rescuers sequel that they wanted. And that’s how 80 years of pop culture and Disney history crashed together into Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022).
The film establishes Chip and Dale (respectively voiced here by John Mulaney and Andy Samberg) as a pair of childhood best friends who went into comedy together with a high-pitched voice gimmick. Long story short, they auditioned in L.A. until they were lucky enough to be offered their own series. Yes, the “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” animated show (and all the others in the Disney Afternoon lineup, apparently) really did exist in this universe as a work of televised fiction, right up until Dale decided to go solo. The show was immediately canceled and Dale’s big break never made it past the pilot episode.
Cut to the present day. Dale has since gone through a kind of plastic surgery to make himself CGI, desperately trying to keep hold of the glory days as he rallies a nonexistent fanbase to make a Rescue Rangers reboot that’s never going to happen. Chip, meanwhile, is making a lonely yet respectable and accomplished life for himself as an insurance salesman.
Let’s pause a moment and take stock of where the Rescue Rangers are at over 30 years after the TV show went off the air.
- Chip and Dale haven’t spoken with each other in decades.
- Chip is a sad and lonely insurance salesman.
- Dale is a laughingstock washed-up actor.
- Monterey Jack is essentially a drug addict stuck in the gutter, destroyed by his addiction to stinky cheese.
- Gadget and Zipper are now married, and there’s a recurring sight gag about the 42 hideous mouse/fly hybrid children they’re raising.
I’d like to pose a question to all my fellow ’90s children: Does it bring you any kind of joy or humor, knowing that this is where the characters ended up? Is this what anyone wanted in a sequel and/or reboot of the franchise? Does this look even the least bit respectful to the characters or the fans? Is this how you want to introduce a whole new generation of fans to the characters? Because it looks to me like the filmmakers tried to go for “dark meta humor” and missed the mark only to shit on the characters and the fans who grew up with them.
Anyway, the plot kicks off when Monterey Jack (here voiced by Eric Bana, of all people) calls his old chipmunk pals for help. Apparently, Monty got back on his crippling addiction to cheese and got himself in hock with the Valley Gang. Soon afterwards, Monty is the latest in a long string of abandoned cartoon characters to get kidnapped by the Valley Gang, warped beyond recognition, and sold overseas to star in crappy foreign bootleg movies.
Just to make this perfectly clear, the filmmakers are using goddamn human trafficking as an allegory for copyright infringement. The film — by which I mean the largest, wealthiest, most politically powerful media force the world has ever seen since the goddamn Medici Family — wants us to equate internet piracy and cheap foreign knockoffs with kidnapping and forced labor. Granted, we’re working in the context of a world in which intellectual properties are every bit as sentient as flesh-and-blood people. And yes, Roger Rabbit used ‘toons as an allegory for marginalized people for the purpose of making implicit statements about redlining and gentrification.
The difference is that Roger Rabbit used the allegory to make a statement about an issue that was affecting genuine people here in the real world. Chip ‘n Dale is using that exact same emotional attachment to make a statement about an issue that only really affects multibillion-dollar international conglomerates like Disney. It’s manipulative, it’s cynical, it’s a barbaric insult to the real-life victims of human trafficking.
In point of fact, the whole movie has that same deeply mean-spirited vibe. It’s quite telling that the film is loaded with sight gags about “Mr. Doubtfire”, “Batman vs. E.T.”, and other such blatant parodies meant to be stand-ins for the ridiculous ideas and pathetically desperate reboots that Hollywood churns out on a regular basis. And then we get umpteen other sight gags about horribly crappy bootleg movies that really aren’t any different or worse than the “real” Hollywood releases.
What’s more, it’s frankly outrageous that the film uses “Rescue Rangers reboot” as a shorthand for an absurdly pathetic idea that nobody would ever want to see, when that’s the exact movie we’re watching. To list another example, Chip complains about rapping chipmunks and how rapping cartoon characters are so pathetically lame, then he and Dale get a rap sequence at the halfway point. Time and again, the movie talks about how idiotic something is, and then does the idiotic thing. We’re past the point of meta humor with a movie poking fun at itself, now the movie is making fun of the idiot studio that greenlit this and the idiot moviegoers who sat down to watch it.
Another case in point concerns the adult Peter Pan, voiced here by Will Arnett. Long story short, we catch up with Peter Pan after he got his big break as a child star with the 1953 Disney animated film. Trouble is, Peter Pan got kicked to the curb after he hit puberty, the hits dried up, and he’s been stuck in a life of crime ever since.
In real life, Bobby Driscoll was the voice and live-action reference for Disney’s Peter Pan — indeed, Driscoll was a personal favorite of Walt Disney himself and had appeared in many earlier Disney pictures. Then puberty happened and Driscoll had outgrown his usefulness to the company, so Disney kicked him to the curb. After so many years as “the Disney Kid”, Driscoll faced a personal life of bullying and a professional life that left him unable to get work. Long story short, Driscoll fell into drug abuse until he was found dead at the age of 31, then he was buried in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island.
I know this was a long time ago and the target audience doesn’t know all this history. The filmmakers did. There’s no conceivable way the higher-ups at Disney didn’t know about this dirty laundry. And they gave the green light to a joke character making fun of the actual personal tragedy and the very real death that the company was directly responsible for. Eat shit. Eat all the shit.
This is why big-budget parodies will never, ever work: Because a parody can only work when it’s punching up, and only with a degree of detached perspective. It’s outrageous and frankly insulting for freaking Disney to make a Hollywood parody when for all intents and purposes, THEY ARE HOLLYWOOD. Why is Disney wasting their time bitching about all the inane schlock getting greenlit when they’re in a position to greenlight whatever the hell they want?!
So is there anything in this movie to like? Well, the animation is phenomenal. Major kudos are due for seamlessly integrating 2D animation, CGI, stop-motion, and puppets with live action, and making all these different animated media look so flawless. Hell, even the flaws in the animation are flawless. We also get a couple of neat sight gags here and there — the “battering ram” joke got me to laugh, I won’t lie.
John Mulaney and Andy Samberg are okay (and I don’t even want to talk about KiKi Layne, she deserves so much better than this), but I was honestly much more impressed with the supporting cast. Will Arnett goes full asshole to an extent I’ve never seen from him before, Keegan-Michael Key is always a pleasure, and J.K. Simmons once again proves himself a tremendously underrated voice actor. Seth Rogen shows up, but his character is mostly notable for a sight gag in which he runs into all the other animated characters Rogen’s voiced in his career. That was cute.
(Side note: Yes, I’m aware that John Mulaney has turned toxic recently. I’m not inclined to hold it against the film, because it’s not terribly likely the filmmakers could’ve known that was coming. The guy was America’s darling until just before the film came out.)
Oh, and Tress MacNeille came back to voice Gadget. The character doesn’t really show up until the third act, but she’s the only Rescue Ranger speaking with her original voice and god damn was it a delight to hear.
Perhaps most importantly, at least this one isn’t as bad as Space Jam: A New Legacy. Yes, the two films are indisputably in the same class, but at least Disney had the good sense to drop this one onto streaming in the wake of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness while WB had the audacity to demand premium multiplex prices in mid-July. What’s more, at least Chip ‘n Dale clearly knows what it wants to be and who it’s trying to impress. While Space Jam: A New Legacy was desperately throwing everything at the screen in pure desperation, I can at least give Chip ‘n Dale credit for treating the pop culture references as a means for satirical “humor” and not an end in itself.
Meta humor — certainly to this extent — is an especially difficult breed of humor to nail down, extremely high-risk and high-reward. I’m open to the possibility that the filmmakers went into this with the best of intentions, eager to push the franchise in a bold new direction, but the slippery nature of meta humor eluded them and it backfired terribly. To be clear, I’m not entirely convinced that’s what happened (Somebody knew exactly what they were doing in appropriating the Bobby Driscoll tragedy like that.), but it is at least somewhat plausible.
With all of that faint praise aside, let there be no mistake that Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022) is a monstrosity. We should all be profoundly grateful that these filmmakers were never allowed to make a proper Roger Rabbit sequel, and at least the damage was limited to Rescue Rangers. It’s depressing and frankly insulting how the filmmakers put so much effort into making a pop culture meta parody, going too far to the point where they’re actively insulting the original property and its fans. It’s hypocritical and outrageous for Disney to make fun of Hollywood’s purported lack of originality when they’re the ones who put so much time and money into a Rescue Rangers reboot. Most importantly, the film’s “satire” of copyright infringement and Disney’s own dark history with child stars is revolting to the point of heartless.
If you want an action/comedy that does meta humor in a way that honors the pop culture subject and its fans, you’re looking for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Fuck this movie.