Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers Subverts Rote Assumptions

Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

Let’s be honest. Walt Disney Pictures and the notion of risk-taking do not go hand-in-hand. As successful as they are, The Mouse House has the reputation of playing things very safe and rarely subversive. We have watched them churn out a wealth of movies and television programs for decades that picked simple, presentable formulas and stuck with them. Taking little to no risks has proven to work as smart and profitable entertainment plays. In this movie, the chestnut of “the biggest risk is not taking any risk at all” is the pushback.

We have seen that the easiest process for a Disney reboot, remake, reimagining, or long-distance sequel is to hire fresh faces or voices and play to the “greatest hits” of what the entity was. Polish it with some modern animation or special effects and the newfangled ice cream sundae is complete, one that would likely go over well with new audiences and enough returning fans not to get completely disowned. The truly fun part is when Disney steps out on a creative tangent to disrupt the norm. Of all the possible major or minor properties from their vast vault, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers becomes one of those rare exceptions of wild and woolly chances.

Two chipmunks walk past an animated prisoner.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

The rote ingredients were there. The preview footage showed that Disney spared no expense to layer classic 2D animation and modern 3D CGI rendering on top of live-action sets and performers to splash together something for every generation. Marvel composer Brian Tyler amps that theme song with full orchestra motifs. Disney’s casting of Saturday Night Live comedy favorites Andy Samberg to play the doofus Dale and John Mulaney to play the straight man foil Chip writes itself for banter. Having two How I Met Your Mother alums penning the screenplay and Samberg’s The Lonely Island buddy Akiva Schaffer (The Watch) directing looked like a natural fit for something loud, busy, and with just the right amount of manchild immaturity.

Checking birth certificates, every single one of those men are not hired gun Millennials coming to Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers with conjectural memories of that silly cartoon show of gumshoe rodents that debuted 32 years ago only amassed 65 episodes. All of them were old enough to be there, sitting in their Underoos for appointment television. Each could feel “seen” if someone took those 2022 Super Bowl halftime joke memes about back pain and needing to schedule colonoscopies and applied them to the original Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

A dangerous green laser cuts the floor and separates two chipmunks.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

That aged appreciation and fanboy zest comes through in this movie as well as their brazen spirit. Rather than play out an easy reunion with some massive globe-trotting caper, screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand stick to Hollywood and the wedge of dichotomy that split our two title characters and kept them from talking to each other for three decades. Every nostalgic note or easy joke is cleverly wrapped with a candy-coated shell of self-awareness and a lingering implication of something bigger afoot that may not be as sweet as the outside.

The lounger Dale has clung to his fading stardom in the years since the show. He has recently undergone elective “CGI surgery” to become pixelated as a way of freshening his look and scheming hope for future acting gigs. He’s hawking for a reboot to anyone who will listen. The best he’s been able to muster is a steady autograph table on the local fan convention circuit next to the likes of Marvel’s Tigra and Beauty and the Beast’s Lumiere.

Two differently animated chipmunks stare across a busy nightclub.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

Meanwhile, the sharper Chip matured with the intelligence he always had to help people. He’s now slinging insurance like Bob Parr from The Incredibles. It’s a menial job, but it’s steady and risk-averse. When the hit afternoon cartoon ended, Chip never looked back or sought a return to stardom.

In town, several retired animated supporting characters have gone missing, including Flounder from The Little Mermaid and Chip ‘n Dale’s own Monterrey Jack (Eric Bana, having an Australian ball). The police, led by Captain Putty (voiced by J.K. Simmons) and assisted by his rookie detective Ellie Whitfield (a cheerful KiKi Layne from If Beale Street Could Talk), cannot find hard evidence, but word on the street implicates the unseen crime leader “Sweet Pete” (later voiced by Will Arnett). He is rumored to command a strong-armed racket of kidnapping washed-up and financially broke toons, erasing and redrawing their features, and selling them overseas to perform on the profitable knockoff movie market.

A woman smiles lifting up a silly hat.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

Stop right there. Read that last sentence again. If you read preposterousness, you read it right. If within that absurdity, you have a knee-slapping “dang” moment of wanting to see how that kind of uniquely framed hustle gets pulled off in a tidy 97 minutes, then you’re in for a treat with Schaffer’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. From the establishing setup and this criminal premise onward, nothing is quite normal or hunky-dory compared to the typical Disney tone. We’ve got a movie brave enough to put showbiz flaws and intellectual property stereotypes on blast for laughs and intriguing self-examination. The cognizance is on point.

For two example slices of that, one character nails the aim to say “there’s nothing more pathetic than an old cartoon character trying to seem cool again by rapping” and “the worse the joke, the longer the laugh.” You can feel the “I’m looking at you” finger move and stare from this movie to competitive targets like the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies of the last fifteen years or even Shrek. Those are just two of many targeted bits in Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that the parents in the room are certainly going to get with thousand bells dinging while still being portrayed in a slick way for the younger target demographic to handle and buy into a good mystery.

A large warrior stands guard at a door in front of two visitors.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gay for Disney Enterprises

Naturally, our two estranged, yet symbiotic chipmunks, who met back in the third grade but haven’t spoken since their show ended, need to reconnect to find and spare their buddy Monterrey from the artistically mangling bootleg fate coming to him. Their reunion is not an automatic playground slide of falling right into their old act. Both the wise one and the knucklehead need help with the lessons of never giving up on friends, holding onto your closest ones, and choosing friends over business, all under the pressure of taking risks again.

Between the character arcs in Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers and the meta commentary happening above it for the viewers, we see that inspiration counts no matter how small, isolated, or weird. If whatever inspires you gets you active, fulfills you, and makes you happy, then it counts. Look no further than this movie and the people who collaborated to bring it back from the archive. It would have been very easy for Schaffer, Gregor, Mand, and the cast to discount this minor entry in Disney’s sizable catalog. For all that, they stayed true to their personal soft spots while having the confidence to twist every amalgamation they could to make something alert, reverential, and most surprisingly, amusing.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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  1. Friggin’ loved this movie. I hope Disney continues to allow this level of creativity and risk-taking going forward.

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