If only Andy Warhol had lived to see “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” the cinematic culmination of the Campbell’s soup can painter’s meta-commentary on the blurring of art and commerce. This frenetic and funny crossbreeding of live action and cartoon is both a reboot and an anti-reboot, a corporate-funded raspberry at corporate IP, and a giddily dumb smart aleck committed to mocking its joke — and making it, too.
Director Akiva Schaffer, a producer and occasional helmer, has already helped to invert the meathead action flick (“MacGruber”), the rock biopic (“Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping”), the time-loop comedy (“Palm Springs”) and, of course, the music video as one-third of The Lonely Island, co-founded with his middle school friends Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone, both of whom voice characters here. The trio met around the time Disney’s original 1989 “Rescue Rangers” series shifted into syndication and one barely has to squint to see that this feature is a cargo cult of nostalgic obsessions held together by snark, moxie and momentum.
Here, Chip (a bone-dry John Mulaney) and Dale (Samberg) are middle-aged chipmunk actors who have long since spent the royalty checks from their time on the series. Chip sells boat and RV insurance; Dale scavenges for dollars at depressing fan conventions next to the junked redesign of Sonic the Hedgehog. (“The internet saw my human teeth and burned the place down,” he laments.)
Out on the streets, hard-up toons hawk social security scams, addictive cheeses and Muppet fights. Meanwhile, a down-and-out racketeer (Will Arnett), who once headlined in his own Disney movie seven decades ago, has vowed to undermine the company that spat him out. His plans involve kidnapping and mutilating past stars, forcing them to perform in crass knockoffs with titles like “The Small Fish Lady” and “Spaghetti Dogs.” Police officers Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons) and Ellie (KiKi Layne) are powerless to prevent the crime, even though these black market bootlegs are the most brutal attack on cartoon liberty since a screaming shoe was murdered in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — clearly the dominant influence on screenwriters Dan Gregor and Doug Mand.
Guardians of small children have discovered, to their alarm, that a tyke with YouTube access and 10 unsupervised minutes to kill is at risk of blundering into a bizarro universe of cartoons, where familiar-seeming characters flail as though they’re on PCP. No less than Mickey Mouse — or rather, a painfully squished and malevolent mutant Mickey Mouse — stars in several of these, including “Mokey’s Show” and “Mouse Fan Club.” (Watch at your own risk.)
“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” is a clever cautionary tale about these horrors that could itself have crawled out of the stoner swamp. Its aesthetic is willfully wrong. Chip and Dale begin the film as 2D cartoons. Soon after, Dale subjects himself to CG surgery — a facelift of sorts for the pixellatedly insecure — and emerges furry and freakish-looking next to his flat counterpart. Every scene of them together feels deranged by design. And that’s before the duo detour to the Uncanny Valley to meet an early 2000s-style computer-animated Viking (Seth Rogen) with what Chip describes as “those ‘Polar Express’ eyes,” recoil at a steroidal Garfield and, later, dodge a yellow blob who was once Bart Simpson.
That all this hubbub centers on two small rodents feels incidental. Schaffer could whip up a similar take on any bit of cultural flotsam from “Punky Brewster” to “Magnum PI” to Nicolas Cage, if others hadn’t already beaten him to it. Despite the rapid-fire pace of the gags, one’s attention drifts away from the plot to imagine the lawyers hashing out which beloved characters can appear onscreen, and what tortures can be inflicted upon them. Flounder, the yellow-and-blue fish from “The Little Mermaid,” may have it the worst, though the film hurls darts at targets as wide-ranging as Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural and MC Skat Kat, the feline who once romanced Paula Abdul.
These references will mean nothing to kids watching “Rescue Rangers” at the same age Schaffer was when he discovered the series. Neither will the film’s cynical perspective on aging out of one’s dreams. For all Hollywood’s hand-wringing about the younger generation’s dwindling interest in cinema, it makes very few big movies for them. Instead, the Gen-Xers and Millennials who endured the Boomers’ grip on the culture are now throttling the youth to laugh at jokes about “Beavis and Butt-head” and pogs. It’s a tale as old as time, as a teapot once sang. That teapot now stars in “Beauty and the Cursed Dog.”