The three previous films in the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide despite consistent, nearly unanimous critical drubbings. The newest iteration, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” has the distinction of opening immediately opposite “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” This would seem to have put the filmmakers in an unusual position wherein it is not expected, and perhaps not even desired, that the film they produce live up to any stringent standards — and perhaps that explains some stranger-than-usual touches in this outing, such as having the Chipmunks land on a terrorist watch list, making a few jokes about the NSA surveillance program, or placing ringleader Alvin opposite John Waters for a discussion of “Pink Flamingos.” Those precious few minutes of minutely subversive madness aside, “Road Chip” is business as usual: a mostly harmless yet plenty rough assemblage of musical numbers and rote chases that barely add up to a movie, but should provide relatively profitable counterprogramming for tykes shut out of the weekend’s big release.
Once again reuniting Dave Seville (Jason Lee) with his CG-animated trio of multiplatinum singing sciurids, the Walt Becker-directed “Road Chip” finally finds a way to question the legality of his guardianship, a status that is thrown into question when he introduces his charges to his new girlfriend, a doctor named Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, helpfully wearing a stethoscope around her neck at all times). A single parent herself, Samantha comes with teenage son Miles (Josh Green), an Eddie Haskell-style bully who takes an immediate dislike of his rodential counterparts. After the boys discover an engagement ring in Dave’s possession, they’re forced to consider their future.
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When Dave takes Samantha to Miami to attend an album release party for his new protege (Bella Thorne, who may or may not be aware that her co-stars are animated chipmunks), the ‘Munks — once again unrecognizably voiced by Justin Long (Alvin), Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon) and Jesse McCartney (Theodore) — and Miles are left home alone together. Horrified by the prospect that they could soon become step-siblings (and whipped into a panic by Miles’ assurance that Dave will abandon them once he and Samantha start a new family), the foursome set off to Miami, leaving a trio of squirrels loose in the house to fool a dippy next-door neighbor (Jennifer Coolidge) tasked with looking after them. (The Chipettes are relegated to bit parts here, having secured a judging gig on “American Idol.”)
After some in-flight anarchy grounds their plane, the boys wind up marooned in Texas, pursued by a malignant air marshal with a longstanding anti-Chipmunk grudge (Tony Hale, taking over the villain’s role from his former “Arrested Development” co-star David Cross, who memorably described his role in 2011’s “Chipwrecked” as “the most unpleasant experience I’ve ever had in my professional life.”) The trio and Miles gradually warm up to one another, with Miles becoming their backing guitarist for busking dates as they wind their way to New Orleans, staging a blowout rendition of “Uptown Funk” with a French Quarter jazz band. (The song is appropriately chipmunked, though a later appearance of “Turn Down for What” is not, representing perhaps the only time the film demonstrates enough potential to squander.)
At the risk of praising the film with faint damnation, nothing here is any better than it has to be, but it’s rarely anywhere near as bad as it could be. Groaner pop-culture gags come and go painlessly, instances of chipmunk poop are fleeting, and from the acting to the animation to the choreography, every production element here sets a precariously low bar and then clears it well enough.