Originally introduced in 1943, animated chipmunks Chip and Dale made the jump from animated shorts to home release tales and then, in 1989, to broadcast television when the duo was remade into detectives for the series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. The crime-fighting show was part of a seminal animated block which included the likes of DuckTales and TaleSpin, a block which helped open the door for the terror that flaps in the night, Darkwing Duck. Seeing as the residents of Duckberg got a reboot (and Darkwing being a part of it), it was only a matter of time until Chip, Dale, and the rest of the Rescue Rangers returned, which we get in the form of an Disney+ original movie written by Dan Gregor (Dolittle) and Doug Mand (Dolittle) and directed by Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). Dear readers, while the presentation of Rescue Rangers appears along the lines of classic mixed-medium noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), it has more in common with the chaotic The Happytime Murders (2018), making for a film that’ll entertain the hell out of you once and you’ll never need to see again.
It’s been 30 years since the cancellation of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers with Chip (John Mulaney) a grand success in the insurance game and Dale (Andy Samberg) surviving on the Con circuit, the two having barely spoken in all that time. This changes when old friend Monterey Jack (Eric Bana) reaches out to them both for help before he ends up like six other missing toons from the area. Too late to stop his kidnapping, the duo set about finding their old friend, working with longtime fan Officer Ellie (Kiki Layne) to track clues across the city before it’s too late for Monty.
Straight-up, Rescue Rangers is not for your children. This isn’t because of the slew of references that require an almost encyclopedic knowledge of obscure facts to follow or that this film is based on a series from (let’s presume) the youth of many parents today. This isn’t about what they won’t understand, but the content of the story itself. Without spoiling the details of the film entirely, the life and times of Chip and Dale are a tad more adult and thus the comedy comes from that perspective. Con life has its own particular sadness, as does a grueling 9-to-5 with no social life, something that anyone of any age can appreciate within a certain setup for a joke. But many of references themselves require prior knowledge in order to understand. One specific joke that is essential to the narrative requires some inside baseball into the world of filmmaking that the average pre-pubescent child is not likely to know or understand. For example, I don’t think my kids are going to find the Chippendales joke in the opener (made also in the trailer) very funny as it’s well outside their wheelhouse. Then there’s the actual plan of the bad guy, which is hilarious on its face, but implies some heady concepts like human trafficking and forced servitude. Roger Rabbit isn’t exactly safe for young kids either given the sexual nature of some scenes, the undertones of gentrification, the exploration of classism and racism (toons versus humans), as well as the sadistic nature of Judge Doom (though I will admit to spending a good part of 1988/1989 as an 8/9-year old watching and rewatching the film in theaters as often as my mom would allow). The point is that for all of Rescue Rangers‘s brilliant use of characters from the whole of animated history (hinted at in the trailers promoting the release), the way they get used often feels like the downgrade/slope portion of a “Behind the Music” episode.
Considering that I’m making a fairly precise comparison by referencing a program whose original series wrapped in 2014, make of that what you will.
While you work that out, allow me to elucidate on what works and what’ll have you in stiches, or, at the very least, rolling your eyes hard.
Directed by Schaffer with Mulaney and Samberg starring already gives the audience a certain sense of what to expect based on how these particular storytellers use their comedy: there’s little in the form of subtext and mostly it’s just saying something oddball with an inflection. At the very least, the script from Gregor and Mand has some built-in rules, such as allowing for Chip and Dale to have “real voices” versus their “show voices” to explain why they don’t sound like they do on the show. This not only allows the audience to understand why we’re not hearing Tress MacNeille voice Chip and Corey Burton voice Dale (though MacNeille and other original voices (for OG Rescue Rangers and other properties) are present elsewhere), it allows the film itself to stand outside of the program, establishing this film as taking place in an alt-reality where the characters we see in hand-drawn or CG animation are, in actually, real beings. These rules are similar to those in Roger Rabbit: toons follow the rules of reality in so far as they are tangible and exist, yet function as separate from reality, allowing for ridiculous hijinks to ensue. Sometimes this pays off, such as when the duo investigate a bath house run by Sweet Pete (Will Arnett); or not, as when trying to recreate an escape plan from the cartoon series that isn’t so easily replicated. Personally, the joke about Bob the Warrior Viking, voiced by and stylized after Seth Rogen, being part of the uncanny valley period of CG animated films is hilarious as a background element of the film more than through Bob himself. This is smart because the better jokes within Rescue Rangers are the ones that we don’t get beat over the head with. When the jokes are allowed to just exist, it becomes clear why Schaffer and company are perfect to run this particular production. But when the majority of the jokes hit us like sledgehammers, the lack of subtly reeks of the worst version of the Lonely Island crew’s storytelling approach. There’s one joke in particular that’s very niche, but if you exist within that niche, you’ll be delighted beyond repair.
Though Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers isn’t something you can just put on for your kids and leave running while you (a parent) try to get something done, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a program like this aimed at adults. It’s just that those who see it pop up on Disney+ will likely presume it’s just a feature-length mixed-medium episode and end up *shocked* to find out it’s not for the kids but for us, the kids formerly of Disney Afternoons. It’s not just the grittiness of the narrative which runs through the ooey-gooey heart of the film that designates its audience, it’s all the things which surround that narrative. Also, there are a slew of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, so make sure to have the remote handy for easy pauses and rewinds. Frankly, I applaud not only Gregor, Mand, and Schaffer for being willing to explore the more cynical narrative of television and filmmaking, but whomever at Disney greenlit this. Just as much as my kids need entertainment, so do I. While this experience is one I’m likely to forget, the feeling of it will linger.
Available for streaming on Disney+ May 20th, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.