For years, Disney has been churning out live-action reboots of its popular animated films for better and (mostly) worse. Now, they’ve hit the point of creating their own parody, made to gently mock while promoting many, many of the properties under the ever-expanding Disney umbrella. Playing like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the new Disney release Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers brings back the classic animated characters in a live-action neo-noir scenario, with a Hollywood backdrop that offers an endless parade of cameos of real-life and cartoon celebs, bolstered by a star-studded voice cast: Andy Samberg, John Mulaney, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, and Eric Bana.
However, when it’s Disney poking fun at itself, perhaps it’s no surprise that this showbiz comedy pulls its punches.
Scripted by Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers kicks off with a brilliant premise. The rascally rodents are re-imagined as a comedy duo who came up together, creating the characters that audiences enjoyed on the ’80s TV show Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers: Chip (John Mulaney) was the straight man to Dale’s (Andy Samberg) stooge antics. However, tired of feeling like a joke, Dale tried to go solo, inadvertently ending his and Chip’s acting careers. Years later, Dale has desperately tried to reclaim his fame by getting “3D animation surgery,” which makes him look like the victim of many a cringe CGI reboot, while Chip has given up showbiz for an isolated life as a pencil-pusher/dog parent. That is, until their old pal Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) goes missing. With LAPD detective Putty (J.K. Simmons) at a loss for leads, the feuding former friends reunite to rescue their co-star from a fate not nearly worse than death. But we’ll get to that.
Samberg soars as Dale, but Mulaney is miscast as Chip
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc
As Dale, Andy Samberg is in his comfort zone, playing a lovable doofus. His signature optimism and wackiness acts as a solid foil to Chip’s cynicism and rationale. However, Mulaney feels wasted in the straight man role. A stand-up comic who’s long played with his voice as if he’d stepped out of a 1940s movie, he feels confined by the taciturn nature of this dream-dashed chipmunk. Whereas in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, his voice brought Spider-Ham to vivid life, in Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, Mulaney feels flat.
However, director Akiva Schaffer (of The Lonely Island) finds plenty of opportunities to layer in comedy and spectacle. The background is littered with kooky movie posters and puns. Animation fans will thrill over the incredible breadth of cartoon characters who pop up, either in “person” or as merchandise, cosplay, or namedrops. It’s not just classic Disney characters, like Lumiere, who live in Chip and Dale’s Los Angeles. There are also allusions to Marvel comics, Star Wars, The Simpsons, South Park, Rick and Morty, Shaun the Sheep, Beavis and Butt-Head, My Little Pony, and many, many more.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit vs. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, SMPSP / Disney Enterprises, Inc
Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit did back in 1988, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers successfully creates a world where toons and humans live side-by-side by including a barrage of characters across studio licensing. It’s the kind of crossover that seems impossible nowadays, and props to Disney for somehow folding in so many cameos. Not only are they a pleasure to pick out, but they are a welcome reminder of how thrillingly diverse animation has been — not only over the years, but also outside of the House of Mouse aesthetic. However, Disney can’t match Buena Vista Pictures’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit for daring. Its mix of animation and live-action leaned hard into film noir, but Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers doesn’t dare go that dark.
It might seem unfair to compare the two, as their similarities are setting and, loosely, genre. But Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers invites comparison when it features a cameo of Roger Rabbit in its first act. How are we not meant to remember how this boisterous bunny had to beat a murder rap not only to reconnect with his cheating wife but also to team up with a drunken detective to save Toon Town from the villainous capitalist, Judge Doom? Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a kids movie with cursing, smoking, lust, and murder. By comparison Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is just kids’ stuff. There’s nothing as dark as Eddie’s brother being murdered by a toon. No sex on the level of Jessica Rabbit’s patty-cake. No violence on par with Judge Doom dipping that little red shoe.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a neo-noir without the noir
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers’ version of neo-noir darkness is stinky cheese standing in for drugs, an allusion to underground Muppet fight clubs, and a kidnapping scheme involving has-been toons. There are no life-or-death stakes at all. Instead, the big scary threat to Monterey Jack and the other abducted toons is not being erased but redrawn into janky new iterations. Because in a Disney movie, the true villain is the mockbuster studios that try to cash in on their IP.
By not engaging with the darkness expected of noir, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers undercuts its emotional resonance. The squabbles between Chip and Dale that might have spoken to relatable feelings of betrayal, resentment, and longing are turned into bits and callbacks. So, these low points don’t play as a powerful a foil as they might to moments of joy and victory. It’s not one-note, but it’s all close enough that Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers feels sanitized. Which yes, makes it more kid-friendly. But having grown up in the age of Legend, The Secret of NIMH, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I think kids can stand a bit more darkness than we grown-ups tend to give them credit for.
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Beyond paling in comparison to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers’ attempt at commenting on animation’s missteps feels safe and stale, as all their references are already well-worn punchlines. Chip scorns rebooted cartoon characters who rap to seem freshly relevant. A trip into Uncanny Valley offers a tour of horrid renders, including the humanoid felines of Cats. Then, there’s a long and repeated bit involving Ugly Sonic, the speedy hedgehog whose human teeth set the internet aflame so long ago that his successor already has a sequel. These are funny in a “I recognize that reference” way, but they are far from irreverent or insightful. They’re just cheap jokes.
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc
In the end, though, it’s not so much disappointing that Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers can’t live up to the irreverent originality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s disappointing that Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers fails to deliver on the promise of its premise. A solid first act sets up a frantic joke style that includes kooky cutaways, a Tenacious D needle drop, and a seedy-underbelly-of-LA storyline with a Behind the Music hook. But as its furry heroes scurry into the case, things quickly turn tame and predictable. Instead of a harried detective, they have a noble rookie (Kiki Layne), who is also a fangirl. The villains are so easy to recognize that there are jokes about their predictability. But lampshading never makes the offense any less irritating.
It’s a bummer. Sure, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a rollicking romp, full of fan service for animation lovers. It’s fluffy entertainment for the whole family. But it’s also a reboot that takes aim at the concept of animation reboots, but then refuses to pull the trigger. So, even in the face of its easy-breezy comedy, I’m left wishing for what it might have been if Disney could learn to actually laugh at itself.