More than hyperactive enough to engage small fry with microscopic attention spans, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” also has built-in nostalgia appeal for baby-boomer parents and grandparents willing to accept 21st-century remixes of novelty songs and cartoon characters from the 1950s and ’60s. This latest mash-up of live-action comedy and CGI shenanigans from helmer Tim Hill (“Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties”) is a harmless and frequently humorous trifle that might be a potent B.O. performer, if only by default, during a holiday season surprisingly short on kidpics. Homevid prospects are huge.
Title characters date back to 1958, when the late musician-songwriter Ross Bagdasarian used then-state-of-the-art recording technology to create high-speed, high-pitched vocals for the chart-topping hits “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” (Pic acknowledges that wonderful year with a long-held shot on a street address.)
The specific personalities of the chipmunk siblings — spunky Alvin, brainy Simon and sweetly goofy Theodore — and their often-exasperated human father figure Dave Seville were more or less solidified in “The Alvin Show,” a 1961-’62 animated TV series (in which all four central characters were voiced by Bagdasarian), the template for all things Alvin and/or Chipmunk ever since.
New pic is the chipmunkish equivalent of “Batman Begins,” re-imagining the mythos while re-introducing Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) as madcap forest denizens involuntarily relocated to Los Angeles. They arrive in the right place at the right time — on the upper branches of a Christmas tree in the lobby of Jett Records world headquarters — just as struggling songwriter Dave Seville (Jason Lee) once again fails to sell a tune to his increasingly impatient former college roommate, Jett executive Ian Hawk (David Cross).
Judging from what the aud gets to hear, Ian is altogether justified when he suggests Dave might consider a new line of work. But with talking and singing chipmunks to inspire him — that is, when the furry sprites aren’t laying waste to his apartment or undermining his romance of comely neighbor Claire (Cameron Richardson) — Dave manages to compose and record a potential No. 1 hit.
Dave’s career advancement is temporarily impeded when, in a plot turn that recalls the classic Chuck Jones cartoon “One Froggy Evening,” Alvin and his siblings are unable to perform for anyone but Dave. The chipmunks, however, overcome their stage fright, which leads to fame, fortune and their resultant problems.
Working from a script by Jon Vitti, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, Hill is less than subtle as he emphasizes themes of family values and paternal responsibility. It doesn’t help that, as Lee gives an atypically bland performance as the straight-laced Dave, Cross grabs every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor as the shamelessly materialistic and exuberantly snarky Ian. (Early on, Ian looks at the rodent superstars and cracks wise: “Put some clothes on those guys. It’s kind of embarrassing.”)
Virtue ultimately triumphs, of course, but until Ian starts behaving in an flagrantly nasty fashion — and maybe even for a while afterward — grade-schoolers in the aud likely will think that, hey, the libertine is a lot more fun that the party-pooper.
By this point in the development of f/x trickery, it’s not exactly startling to see that “Alvin and the Chipmunks” offers a seamless juxtaposition of live-action and computer-generated elements. But to give credit where it’s most certainly due, the pic benefits greatly from the persuasive interaction of human and digital co-stars.
Lively hip-hop and techno-pop versions of Chipmunk standards only add to the fun. Closing credits are cleverly illustrated with album covers that chart the decades-long development of Alvin and the Chipmunks as musical icons.