2D and 3D animation blend in "Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" movie.

Nostalgia Bait Can Get Off My Lawn — “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers”

I’m working on an article about the evolution of cyberpunk and I found myself thinking about William Gibson’s shift from cyber noir into postcyberpunk. It happened with a novel called “Pattern Recognition”, and I bring it up because the protagonist Cayce is allergic to brands. She gets sick when she sees a logo. Marketing firms hire her because she has an eye for good design – the few logos that she can physically tolerate. She feels debilitated around places like Times Square, where the number of brands overwhelms the senses. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” would have seen her hunched over a garbage can.

Let’s get this out of the way first: most people like this movie. You might, too. My reaction to it appears to be clearly in the minority. If you like it, that’s awesome and I’m glad you do. I’m not going to super-focus on trashing it or anything. OK, maybe a line or two, but that’s it. I’ll go through what I don’t like, but for me, it opens up a far more interesting conversation about the increasing habit of brand packing such as in this or “Ready Player One”. I don’t take to it the way some do, and where that line of tolerance exists for different viewers is really interesting to me.

“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” was a series I loved as a kid. I was way too young to remember much when I watched it. My memory of it is really just brief impressions. I couldn’t name a specific scene if you asked, so I don’t have nostalgia for it as much as I have curiosity about what it can be.

The animated series followed chipmunks Chip and Dale, riffs on Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. They start a detective agency together and handle cases brought to them by other animals.

The new movie decides this is all a show the pair are cast in, and decades later the chipmunk actors who played those parts have gone their separate ways. It allows the film to tackle a world of human and animal actors – many of whom are 2D cartoons getting 3D surgery to appear in 3D-animated films. It’s very similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in terms of worldbuilding. Dale is still pursuing acting, so he’s gotten the 3D surgery, while Chip is content to work in insurance as the same old 2D version of himself.

They parted on bad terms, but the kidnapping of cartoon actors forces them to work together when their friend Monterey Jack (a mouse actor on “Rescue Rangers”) is kidnapped. The culprits are bootleggers, who redraw the kidnapped cartoon actors into similar but legally distinct characters they can then film in foreign knockoffs.

That’s clever, but “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” always seems to stop at clever. There are few punchlines, just a lot of smart set-up. One scene involves police investigating the crime and telling Chip and Dale they’re at a dead end. It combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, puppetry, and live-action to some stunning effect. Some of these are emulated through CG rather than being the actual medium, but the scene is a successful meld of influences nonetheless. The problem is that nothing happens in it. The stop-motion detective in charge tells them several times over that he can’t do anything, and then a live-action officer just names the next plot point so they can get to it.

This highlights some big problems in the film. The script is repetitive and feels like a rough draft of concepts that need to be fleshed out with more specific dialogue later. Even a kids film (although this is a pretty adult take on it in places) needs dialogue that at least pretends it’s not the same conversation you’ve heard in a thousand movies before.

All the live-action actors come off as extremely wooden. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy were anything but un-emotive in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. A hybrid animation like this is a brilliant excuse to choose certain emotional ranges for live-action characters and play them up. Although it’s a little bit different as a hybrid medium, take a look at any Muppets movie for another example of this approach. That’s completely missing here.

As for the animated characters, Chip and Dale were once a charmingly optimistic and playful odd couple. They’re just downright annoying here. John Mulaney’s fine voice-acting Chip, but Andy Samberg’s Dale comes off as Andy Samberg. He’s a great ensemble player when he has a Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, or Cristin Milioti to do the heavy lifting of everything else going on, but I have trouble with him as the central focus. He highlights moments in comedy rather than carrying them the whole way. That’s not a criticism; very few people can do that. It just means that I don’t think he’s used right at all here.

The biggest issue by far is probably the most divisive one. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” has received a ton of praise for how many character brands it packs into its world. This is what reminds me of Cayce from “Pattern Recognition”. It all starts to feel less like worldbuilding and comedy, and more like an infomercial for unused discount brands.

When Ugly Sonic gets an early monologue about his plight in life, I had mixed thoughts. The human-like CG hedgehog originally advertised in the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie was replaced with a more cartoonish version after fan backlash. The original design was no longer in the film, but survived as a meme. Yet his inclusion in this film struck me less as a nod to fans, and more as “we spent a lot of money on that original CG, let’s see if we can make a brand out of him”.

It doesn’t help that the joke centers on his human-like teeth, a major online criticism that resulted in his redesign. Ugly Sonic doesn’t make any jokes or participate in the creation of any joke; the joke is simply “remember that criticism you had once”. The content is just a quick game of Recognize the Memory. There’s a market for that out there, but I guess I’m really not part of it. What I find interesting going forward as we get more and more brand-packed films like this is where that separation occurs.

The opening of the novel “Ready Player One” lists the 1980s obsessions of a billionaire tech celebrity. Exhaustively. It even has footnotes about additional 80s details the initial list doesn’t cover. It’s grueling. It operates off of the idea that rote nostalgia is content, to the point where I found it unreadable. The book was a major hit.

I know I’m not totally alone in this reaction, though. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was widely criticized in 2021 for being a laundry list of Warner Bros. brands shoved into a movie in the hope LeBron James’s presence might reignite interest in one of them. The difference appears to be where that line is for different viewers.

I don’t think most would disagree that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the most successful approaches to folding disparate sources together into one story. Sure, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker, and Gwen Stacy live in similar enough universes, but Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir? Kimiko Glen’s mech-operating anime Peni Parker? Spider-Ham? It shouldn’t have worked in a thousand years, but instead…it was funny, endearing, and surprisingly meaningful.

Maybe that dictates where the line gets drawn. An early joke in the “Rescue Rangers” movie is that onetime mouse co-star Gadget has married fly costar Zipper. The pair have had 42 babies, half-mouse, half-fly. I didn’t watch the entire film in one sitting, and this joke is just one example why I initially turned it off. It felt mean-spirited to take a character known primarily as an inventor – even if it’s a cartoon, cartoons can still shape us, and it was probably my first mainstream exposure as a child to the idea that women should be scientific leaders – it certainly made the argument more forcefully than what mainstream content for adults was pushing in the 90s. Yet here she’s reduced to a mother pumping out 42 half-fly babies. That’s the joke. Look at a meaningful message in a kids show about the idea women should lead in STEM, now she’s pumping out 42 babies. I guess it’s hilarious if you’re on the Supreme Court.

The characters feel like throwing a thousand brands at the wall to see which might stick and become profitable, and the jokes feel randomly applied because they’re funny to some in a vaccuum, regardless of the spirit behind them, the context, or whether they fit a character. I found it unwatchable. The movie is a major hit.

Maybe this is my get-off-my-lawn moment; I just didn’t expect it to hit in my 30s. Also, I guess I’d need to own a lawn to tell people to get off it and, you know: housing prices.

I don’t think I have answers for where each of us draws the line between finding something to be an inspired collection of sources vs. a compilation of nostalgia-bait masquerading as whole content. I’m not saying I’m right about where that line is – the whole point is it’s different for each of us. We each have different tolerances for it.

I’m not like Cayce, I’m not skipping dinner out of the nausea of it, but I’m so wary of the brand fire sale that many of these films become. I’m wary of the door that opens up into normalizing movies as dumping grounds for as many brand relaunches as can be packed in. We complain about well-thought out reboots or reinterpretations of a single source, and why doesn’t Hollywood come up with anything original, while we take an hour-and-a-half to invite 40 one-note jokes to compete for our relaunch love. The tension of the movie becomes less about anything on-screen, and more about which disused brand will find its viral moment. Maybe it’ll launch a new streaming Ugly Sonic series.

In a way, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:

You can watch “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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