Monday, May 23, 2022

The Chip 'n Dale not-reboot dissects the dangers of nostalgia

No one was asking for this movie. That's exactly the point

Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers presents a surprisingly clear-eyed view of the anxious trend we're witnessing where past glories get reanimated as hollow echoes of themselves. Instead of being a direct sequel, set in the same world of detective adventures as the massively popular 1980s show, the film introduces the conceit that its titular chipmunks are retired actors, and that their series has been left in the past, all but forgotten, and now they need to make peace with the bittersweetness of aging fame. When a former costar is kidnapped in relation to a clandestine cartoon mockbuster operation, our not-heroes must use all their not-expertise to save the day while making mordant commentary on the state of IP-based moviemaking.

The inward gaze that this film casts on our ongoing nostalgia binge is even more interesting coming from a Disney production. The film itself could be counted as another entry in the studio's slate of immensely ill-advised live-action remakes, which so far range from morally confused to culturally ignorant to not even an adaptation in any sense of the word. Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers doesn't waste any of your time pretending that it can recapture the charm of the original thing. But it doesn't go to the other extreme of trashing everything that came before with Shrek-like derision. Instead, what it does is more sincere, more mature, and more valuable: it honors the stories that made your childhood special, but warns against the impulse to retreat back to imagined better times.

The Chip 'n Dale show is an animation classic from a time that already had a complicated relationship with animation classics. It became a hit just as the Disney Renaissance was gaining momentum, when the studio was eager to recover the prestige it had once earned with the likes of Cinderella. Just before The Little Mermaid proved Disney could wow audiences again, there was a discernible anxiety in the television part of the equation. The Chip 'n Dale show is part of the same trend as DuckTales and Goof Troop, which revived legacy characters by making them feel fresh and new to the Millennial generation. One of the fascinating details about this era is that, in the same years that Disney was trying to regain its old position, over at Warner Brothers, Animaniacs was providing priceless meta commentary on classic animation with the criminally underappreciated character of Slappy Squirrel.

In-universe, Slappy Squirrel was a retired actress with a long career in slapstick comedy, and her segments in Animaniacs would retread the same tired routines with genre-savvy variations. So the narrative device of making it explicit to the audience how the Golden Age of Animation had exhausted all the tricks in the book was already known at the time of the Chip 'n Dale show, in the late 80s/early 90s. So what could this new movie add to the tradition of cartoon characters throwing shade on cartoon tradition?

In this new adaptation, the older versions of Chip and Dale are still coasting on their one hit, bitter about having been forgotten, and going through an aimless post-friendship phase. In fact, Slappy Squirrel would feel at home in the terminally self-aware universe of the Chip 'n Dale movie. She never experienced the frenzy of online celebrity culture, but she was old enough to have learned and improved upon all of Bugs Bunny's tricks, knew firsthand the struggles of movie stars who live past their prime, and saw right through any attempt to tell the same jokes again. That's basically the role old Chip and old Dale play here: the enemy they fight is literally a classic animation metaphor for stunted development.

By now it's beyond commonplace to call nostalgic fans manchildren. It's an added level of meta-awareness to cast the quintessential archetypal manchild, Peter Pan, as the incarnation of misplaced nostalgia. This is, of course, by no means an original trope, but this time our villain doesn't scheme to bring back the good old times: his operation is simply to dismantle the cartoon industry by stealing its stars and making his own movies with it.

One possible (and very cynical) reading of this plot choice is that Chip 'n Dale is a movie about the evils of copyright infringement, and by equating bootlegging to human trafficking, Disney wants to teach kids to only buy original Disney productions. But there's more going on here. Disney knows fully well that it doesn't own characters like Cinderella. Those characters and stories belong to the collective memory of humankind; as long as you don't use any of the plots or costumes from Marvel, nothing prevents you from making and selling your own Thor movie.

No, the threat that Chip 'n Dale warns against is not the wish to compete with Disney, but the wish to rely on Disney's past to keep selling reheated leftovers. Even the bad guy in this movie understands that there's no way to repeat the successes of the past, but still he hopes to get something close to it by shameless imitation. In our legacyquel-infested times, it feels like a gust of fresh air to have this honest take on the problem with remakes, one that the film turns even more literal when our villain morphs into a monstrous smorgasbord of beloved characters with no logical or thematic connection.

Sure, Chip 'n Dale has lots of cameos, and they can get distracting in crowd scenes, but they're never used as a substitute for having a story to tell. It doesn't reach the degree of visual overbloat of Ready Player One, and has none of the desperation that oozed all over Looney Tunes: Back in Action (starting with its title). The titular duo has exactly the right dynamic you expect from a buddy comedy, the interaction between the toon-sized characters and regular humans is the most seamless since Roger Rabbit, and the story never makes itself any illusions that this is some sort of starting point for a new franchise. No, Chip 'n Dale is done, and the movie knows it's a good thing it's done. This story is not meant to make you long for your childhood; it's meant to help you part with it in good terms.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the synergy between the script, voice acting, and animation for Chip, who comes off as an emotionally developed character with a believable list of regrets, and whose style of comedy manages to be barbed without falling into the facile quips that plague scripwriting these days.

Penalties: −3 for the monumental tastelessness it takes to give Peter Pan a villain origin story that mirrors the real-life tragedy of Peter Pan's voice actor, which seemed to foreshadow the turbulent trajectories of multiple subsequent Disney child stars.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.