My sister brought up an amazing point the other day, and it’s been weighing on my mind ever since. It was in reference to her hesitation to watch the Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers movie, but it really could apply to a number of films released over the past few years, especially the ones that make a fair amount of meta references, deal in fan service, or just trigger the critical thought centers of your brain:
At what point do you go from self-aware to self-indulgent?
If there’s any one question that sums up one of the core issues with the Hollywood machine these days, that’s it. Is there a line that separates a film or studio just having a bit of a laugh or a winking nod from the cynical, crass cash grabs that just trot out whatever IP they can get their hands on in lieu of plot or character? If so, where is that line?
I think we can put a few recent examples along a spectrum. For example, one of last year’s consensus worst films was Space Jam: A New Legacy, which was little more than LeBron James in front of a green screen while Warner Bros. paraded every property it owns for cheap cameos and cheaper jokes. On the flipside, something like The Lego Movie understood that it’s basically a commercial, so it leaned extra hard into the absurdity to then gobsmack you with a surprisingly affecting twist ending. I think so far the entirety of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe falls on the lesser side of the equation – even the films I like – because it’s becoming increasingly clear that Disney is trying to commoditize the audience (rather than democratizing them) by forcing them to watch all related media to understand what’s going on. Meanwhile, a film like Ghostbusters: Afterlife relies heavily on nostalgia to work, but there does seem to be a genuine attempt at pathos and memorable characters; even poorly-developed ones like Podcast still stick out.
So where does Chip ‘n Dale fall on this referential gamut? It’s hard to say at times. There are certainly moments where you can feel Disney’s gears grinding you into a pulp, particularly when it comes to Dale (voiced by Andy Samberg) constantly getting hyped for a potential reboot of the Rescue Rangers cartoon series (admittedly one of my favorites growing up), but that’s somewhat balanced by knowing jokes about how those aren’t the best of ideas (though that’s never stopped Disney before). Like Space Jam, the movie is filled to the brim with cameos from tons of cartoons, but it’s more in the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vein, with several of the characters coming from non-Disney properties, like My Little Pony and South Park, and for some reason the “Ugly” version of Sonic the Hedgehog that got redesigned after fans saw him (Tim Robinson, in a much larger role than anyone could have wanted), which would feel really clever if the film didn’t smack you across the face by actually putting Roger Freaking Rabbit in the movie! The film has multiple parody billboards about upcoming crossover films with the comedic quality of the best Simpsons sign gags, but at the same time you can’t put it past Disney or any other studio to actually MAKE these abominations. The story is at times quite clever, but at the same time patently obvious, what with the likes of a Gumby parody detective named Putty who you could tell by character design was voiced by J.K. Simmons before he even opened his mouth. The same goes for a cheesemonger named Bjornson who, despite being voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, you knew was going to be a lame excuse for a Swedish Chef impression, even though Disney owns the Muppets! So is it a self-aware gag, or an attempt to preemptively diffuse any criticism by calling out the consequences of their own avarice, which in itself is something of a self-own, because they’re telling you right to your face that they know what they’re doing, and that they don’t care how upset it makes you as a viewer? I honestly don’t know.
This frustrating dilemma carries into the plot, which begins in 1982 (even though Chip and Dale have been around since the 40s). There a nervous Dale begins his first day of school in a world where humans and toons live in an integrated society. Okay, that seems cool, despite the misplaced timeline. It feels like a continuation/spiritual successor to Roger Rabbit in that sense, as toons would presumably have left Toon Town and the Los Angeles area and branched out across the country. Rather than exploring that, however, we have Dale shunned for pulling off a joke that the class didn’t find funny (I certainly did, but then, I have a sense of humor), but Chip – later voiced by John Mulaney – does, and the two become fast friends, evolving into a comedy duo that later moves to Hollywood to struggle as actors and writers, culminating with the success of the Rescue Rangers show, which again, like Roger Rabbit, is depicted as being performed on a soundstage rather than being physically drawn.
After Dale tries to strike out on his own with a failed spy show pilot, the Rescue Rangers program ends, Chip and Dale’s friendship is on the rocks, and we fast forward to present day, where Chip now works as an insurance salesman (for Coercive Insurance – cute) and Dale gets by on appearance fees at fandom conventions, lying to himself and his social media followers about his Q-rating.
Both Chip and Dale get separate calls from their old co-star, Monterey Jack, voiced here by Eric Bana, though one of the original voice actors, Jim Cummings, makes a TON of cameos as other characters, including Fat Cat. Fans of the show will remember (though exposition does explain things for newcomers) that the smell of cheese sends Monty into a hypnotic, almost drug-induced craze, and in a surprisingly dark turn for any Disney movie, his cheese addiction has gotten him into trouble with organized crime. Several other toons have been kidnapped and “bootlegged,” essentially having their forms altered permanently so that they kind of look like their original designs, and then being used to make bootleg movies and shows for international audiences, and Monty is next on the hit list if he doesn’t square up with Sweet Pete, a middle-aged version of Peter Pan voiced by Will Arnett. When Monty goes missing, Detective Putty and an unsure rookie named Ellie (KiKi Layne) are put on the case. Ellie, being a huge fan of Rescue Rangers, asks Chip and Dale for some off-the-record help in tracking Pete down, as he always seems to be one step ahead, suggesting he’s got someone on the inside feeding him information.
All of this leads to a fairly by-the-numbers mystery adventure where Chip and Dale reconcile and have some genuinely amusing antics, thanks in large part to Samberg and Mulaney’s comedic skills. But in the midst of the fun, many of the gags end up raising a lot more issues than the film probably intended. Let’s run them down.
First, Gadget Hackwrench (still voiced by Tress MacNeille; she was always my favorite, and my first cartoon crush along with April O’Neil; there was just something about women in jumpsuits back then) married Zipper (cleverly voiced by the super deep Dennis Haysbert, given that he was only buzzing noises in the show) and had more than 40 children with him. Oh yeah, we’re saying flat out that a mouse and a fly FUCKED AND HAD HYBRID CHILDREN! In Roger Rabbit they used Patty-Cake as a metaphor, but here we’re abandoning all pretense, and that is something that I do NOT want to imagine, though I’m sure there’s already a huge Rule 34 gallery for it. Despite the gross nature of what their relationship implies, it is intriguing to think that these cartoons grow and mature as people, but with the exception of Pete, they don’t noticeably age. He even runs into Cubby, one of the Lost Boys, at a convention, and he hasn’t aged a day. What are the rules?
Sweet Pete himself raises some murky queries as well. His villainous exposition is that he aged out of playing the role of himself, but we all know what the real issue is here. Disney itself tries to disavow Peter Pan these days because of the indigenous stereotypes that if it were made today would get it cancelled faster than Double-O Dale. So it’s a little cynical to suggest that Pan would become a bad guy as a means to whitewash the fact that “What Makes the Red Man Red?” exists. He’s joined by two lackeys: a polar bear called Jimmy (voiced by Da’Vone McDonald), who I think is a riff on the Coca-Cola polar bears given his CGI design and red holiday sweater vest; and Bob, a CGI Viking Dwarf character voiced by Seth Rogen. He’s meant to be a meta gag on the Uncanny Valley effect of early 2000s CGI, and as far as that goes, it’s effective and funny. But he’s also used as an excuse to get Rogen’s other CGI characters into the fray, including his rebooted version of Pumbaa to comment on his dead eyes, which just feels like Disney talking out of both sides of its mouth.
There are some really smart bits of commentary, but while they land initially, by the end they feel disingenuous. In the present day, Dale himself is 3D CGI while Chip is still 2D cell-shaded. This is a brilliant visual, as is the note that it’s the toon equivalent of plastic surgery, which is sort of like Disney admitting that such tactics are cosmetic at best and don’t actually add anything to the fucking proceedings. But one, apart from Pete, none of the toons age, so what was the point other than for it to look cool? And two, it rings hollow that you’re giving up the ghost on this front while still actively engaging in the practice. If you know it’s cosmetic, then why are you wasting the money on it? Critics don’t care. The audience doesn’t care. So who is it for?
Similarly, early in the film Chip rolls his eyes at a reboot of Alvin and the Chipmunks where the group is rapping, which immediately tells you that he’s going to end up rapping at some point even though we all know it’s lame. Thankfully, the lameness is part of the joke, and you’ll never go wrong with Flula Borg playing a python that’s super into it. The gag is compounded at the end when Dale muses about fading out to a “new” version of the theme song when all anybody wants is the original. So what does the film do? It fades out to a new version by Post Fucking Malone. It’s like we’re being trolled.
The worst part of all is in the film’s central message, which is about as two-faced and nihilistic as it gets. Throughout the course of the movie characters talk about the fear of being “bootlegged” and the hope of being “rebooted,” meaning that imitation is bad, but a studio recycling their material is good. In essence, how dare anyone profit off of this stuff besides Disney? That’s craven in and of itself (to say nothing of the opening studio logo that literally zaps different areas of the castle into other Disney castles, from the likes of Frozen and Aladdin), but it’s made even worse by the so-called moral of the story, expressed via a repeated mantra. “The biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.”
Yeah, that just happened. They actually said that. Repeatedly.
The through line of your entire story is the literal antithesis of Disney’s entire business model for the last 10+ years. If they truly believed in this, we wouldn’t have the MCU crammed down our throats through every form of media imaginable. If they believed this, Star Wars wouldn’t have been spun off into oblivion. If they believed this, we wouldn’t have had to endure every “live action” remake, prequel, or remake prequel sequel we’ve had to put up with for more than a decade now. This moral is even contradicted IN THE MOVIE with everyone wanting a reboot. I just can’t wrap my head around it! It’s like they’re intentionally trying to make anyone capable of critical thought have their head explode from trying to reconcile a paradox like the Nomad robot in Star Trek.
It’s enervating in the extreme, but at the same time, I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the movie. It should be said that the film is at its best when the focus is squarely on the relationship between Chip and Dale, their respective midlife crises, and the general insecurities that linger in any lasting friendship. When we have that rapport front and center with the references firmly in the background, the movie comes close to being genius. And even when the goofy bits are given priority, I have to admit that a good deal of it works. The jokes are solid, if fairly obvious. The same can be said for the plot. I weirdly buy some of the commentary on the harshness of the industry, because I’ve experienced some of it first-hand. The visual integration of humans, toons, and CGI toons is taking the Roger Rabbit motif to the next level. Some of the moments are too on the nose, but that doesn’t mean they don’t succeed to a certain extent. And yes, some of my nostalgia buttons were hit at just the right moment for me to be engaged. I can’t deny these things. I’ve harped on a lot of issues here, but that didn’t ultimately stop me from having a decent experience.
So what side of the line is this movie on? Is it self-aware or self-indulgent? Honestly, I think it straddles the center. I can see people being absolutely floored by some of the decisions this film makes, having a total blast with the callbacks, references, and Easter Eggs without feeling like they’re just watching a Disney commercial like they did with Space Jam and to a lesser extent, Ready Player One. At the same time, I can just as easily see how people might find this to be just another example of Disney’s greed, made even worse by the fact that they seem to know exactly what they’re doing and taking joy in mocking us for catching on to it. In a weird way, I think the fact that the movie doesn’t commit to one side or the other is what saves it, which of course yet again gives lie to the film’s own moral. Disney doesn’t take risks anymore, and that’s arguably why they’re the most powerful media company in the world right now. But here they at least flirted with the idea, letting us know they are capable of thinking outside the proverbial box, even if they’re not willing to go all the way with it, and giving us a taste of nostalgia without utterly ruining what made Rescue Rangers special for a lot of us in the first place. Should you see it? Should you not? I really don’t know, but I get the feeling that if you do, your experience will be wholly unique compared to anyone else’s.
Just please don’t make me think of Gadget and Zipper fucking again. My childhood can only take so many hits.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you watch more nostalgic films if they were a bit more experimental? If Sweet Pete is what happened to Peter Pan, what the fuck happened to Tinker Bell? Let me know!