As light as a banana souffle and about as substantial, “Space Chimps” is a diverting dish for young moviegoing primates. Though dwarfed by the summer’s two 800-pound animated gorillas (well, one panda and a robot), Fox’s relatively under-the-radar toon is a fairly fatuous but enjoyably slim family entertainment about three chimps dispatched to retrieve a multibillion-dollar intergalactic probe. Without the massive promo push afforded those other behemoths, pic’s theatrical landing may barely register. A more promising payload surely awaits in the home-entertainment sphere.
As much as “Space Chimps” monkeys around with reality, it’s inspired, at least in part, by an actual event: In 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee called Ham (an acronym for the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center) on a brief mission in an initial test run for manned space exploration. In the premise for this comedy, helmed and co-scripted (with Robert Moreland) by Kirk DeMicco, the chimps are drafted for their first space expedition in decades after the Infinity probe crash-lands on an alien planet.
Unsure of the planet’s atmospheric conditions, the Space Agency, under the eye of an ambitious senator (voiced by Stanley Tucci), resolves to send three highly trained chimps to retrieve the Infinity probe. Sniffing a PR opportunity, the politician suggests filling a seat with Ham III, grandson of the original space chimp — never mind that the junior Ham (Andy Samberg) is a contented member of a traveling circus, whose only aeronautics experience is his day job as a simian cannonball.
Initially resistant, Ham becomes intrigued by the mission only after meeting the attractive and brilliant chimp co-pilot, Lt. Luna (Cheryl Hines). Their teammate, self-important monkey Commander Titan (Patrick Warburton), is more brawn that brains. After a turbulent start, they head into space and land on planet Malgor, where they meet the evil alien Zartog (Jeff Daniels), a kind of crazed, insatiable real-estate developer seeking global dominion.
In no time, Luna and Ham must track down the probe, rescue Titan and help liberate the enslaved Malgoreans. They’re aided by the diminutive Kilowatt (a part tailor-made for Kristin Chenoweth), who leads Luna and Ham through Malgor’s Valley of Really Bad Things, which are, of course, only as bad as a G rating allows.
The quasi-facsimile nature of computer animation — it’s always a hair or two removed from reality — is remarkably well suited to rendering the chimps, who are so disarmingly (and alarmingly) like humans themselves. Effective, too, is the visual design for planet Malgor: It’s as if Dali’s withered landscapes and Bosch’s cast of eccentrics have been slathered in candy-colored hues borrowed from Strawberry Shortcake.
Though it plainly seeks to satisfy young kids, every now and then, “Space Chimps” offers a winking laugh for the adults in the audience. Luna and Ham’s psychobabble dialogue (they’re floating on the Dark Cloud of Id), for instance, may mean little to children, but it’s a choice allusion. The score, credited to Chris Bacon and the Blue Man Group (who invite alien comparisons themselves), seamlessly blends familiar melodies with jaunty new compositions.