“Movie magic” is not really an exaggeration, because movies are actual illusions. We’re watching images shown to us so quickly that our brains convince us the images are moving. In that regard, animation is simultaneously one of the most fundamental kinds of filmmaking (since it’s doing that, but with drawings) and also one of the most difficult kinds of filmmaking (since it’s doing that, but with drawings!!). As I’ve mentioned before, the Walt Disney Company has always implicitly understood that its particular form of magic is imparting life to the nonliving—that’s what “animate” means, after all. That is why the official manual of how to animate (written by Disney veterans Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston) was titled The Illusion of Life.
This is too heavy a way to begin an article about Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a movie dropped onto a streaming platform from seemingly out of nowhere, and I’m sorry about that. It’s just that it’s also impossible not to think of all of it while watching this weird romp through Disney’s own history of traditional animation, even as the company continues to forge ahead having largely abandoned that art form. It’s impossible not to think of it because the movie itself lives at the nexus of love and bemusement at these old cartoons and a kind of despair at what the system that created them has become.
It is a funny movie about cartoon chipmunks that I enjoyed, too! I promise!
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers—both the Disney Afternoon cartoon from the early ’90s and the live-action-and-animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit-succeeding, BoJack Horseman-ish movie that dropped on Disney+ last week—is a phenomenon tied to one of the most head-scratching developments in the studio’s history, one of the moments when it really felt like the company took another step away from whatever intent that old dreamer Walter Elias Disney had for the company.
When then-CEO Michael Eisner handed down an edict that the company would make a full-court press to try to make money on animation in as many ways as it possibly could, it sounded like a great idea, and marked the beginning of what many people now call the Disney Renaissance that brought back the company’s animated movie musicals in a big way. The company also reasserted itself on TV with the Disney Afternoon animation block, the place where Rescue Rangers the cartoon aired, and one of the most colorful splashes of creativity out of the company since, honestly, Fantasia.
Some things you might see, tuning in during this period, include the characters from The Jungle Book recast as pulp aviation adventurers in an Art Deco oceanside city, gargoyles transposed from medieval Scotland to modern-day New York (Macbeth, from the Shakespeare play, is a recurring villain!!!), Goofy being a loving father and an entire Aladdin spin-off that bizarrely is not anywhere on Disney+.
And there was also Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, complete with its earworm theme song. Like TaleSpin, it re-cast classic Disney characters, in this case the two little chipmunks whose name is a play on the style of furniture (and that they have since come to share with the hunky male exotic dancing troupe, as the movie gleefully reminds us). It featured the duo joining up with a few other friends and forming a detective agency, with plots sending them all over the world to foil kid-friendly evil plots. If it sounds an awful lot like that earlier Disney movie The Rescuers, well, it was originally pitched as such but rejected (The Rescuers Down Under was in production), and Chip and Dale subbed in at some point in development.
It was a fun little show! Chip dressed like Indiana Jones and Dale dressed like he was in Hawaii Five-O. It gave the world cartoon voice director extraordinaire Andrea Romano. It was a serviceable distraction for kids after getting home from school, filled with cookie-cutter plots of the sort you could watch hours of and remember very little about later. It wasn’t even animated by Disney—they farmed the work out to various Asian production companies over the course of the show. (Tokyo Movie Shinsha went to great lengths to ape the animation style, and as a result, some of the animation is actually incredible.)
If you are like me and have all of this info sloshing around your head while you watch Rescue Rangers, then you are in for a very amusing, deeply irreverent, reference-filled romp through the animation you grew up with.
I don’t know how to feel about it.
The story is whatever: In a world where cartoons (and sock puppets, and Gumby-type claymation characters) all exist in real life alongside the rest of us real-life folk the same way anthropomorphic animals exist alongside humans in BoJack Horseman, it’s 30-some years after the eponymous chipmunk duo had their show, and they’ve broken up and become washed-up has-beens who are thrust together into a real-life adventure when their fellow former Rescue Ranger Monterey Jack (Eric Bana?!) runs afoul of a ‘toon kidnapping ring.
None of that stuff is the interesting part: It is literally just BoJack Horseman, right down to the industry the main characters feel angst about having already peaked in (Will Arnett even does a voice, for goodness sake). The eponymous duo are voiced by Hollywood actors who get top billing despite bringing nothing much to the proceedings—all the more galling, considering team member Gadget Hackwrench shows up and is voiced by her original performer, Tress MacNeille, who also voiced Chip in the original cartoon and whose voice you have heard in a thousand different shows in a million different roles.
Sad to say, the quality of the cartoons-in-a-real-world effect is also nowhere even approaching the unparalleled craft of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie in which cartoon characters cast shadows, move objects and got in fistfights with Bob Hoskins. Even the dialogue between human actors and cartoons in the movie is often shot in such a way to fudge things like sightlines or situations where a ‘toon physically interacts with a human (with one big exception near the end, featuring true-blue human cop KiKi Layne scrapping with a non-human opponent).
The movie puts all its eggs in the basket of jokes about animation, 2D and 3D, with ruthless digs at “Ugly Sonic” and the uncanny valley of early ‘00s CGI. There are even oblique nods to the disturbing legacy of Gadget on the internet (don’t Google it, I beg thee), and to the fact mosquito mascot Zipper never had any lines. A lot of that is going to go way over the heads of any kids watching this thing, and a good deal of it will probably seem creepy or disturbing to them.
That’s because the movie isn’t aimed at those kids, but their parents, who were raised on these cartoons and who will unmistakably hear the cry for help embedded in the movie. The heroes are dragging themselves through boring lives, their adventurous days over and not much in the way of family to fill the void. The movies are all crossover crap. Butt-Head (acquaintance of Beavis) is running for U.S. Senate. The villain, it turns out, is another washed out Disney star whose sinister plan is to take other has-been toons and use disfiguring surgery to turn them into knockoffs of their former selves, forced to perform as pale imitations of themselves in cheap cash-in mockbusters. The big victory is that the Rescue Rangers get back together and have reboot prospects.
Animation is magic, an illusion of life. As I’ve had occasion to say recently though, Disney seems intent on using its magic not for illusion but for necromancy, forcing life back into properties that people my age recognize but that can’t possibly mean the same thing to the younger generation who deserve to discover new and exciting stories, and characters who go new places and do new things. And so, it’s kind of great that the folks who made Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022) went as crazy and irreverent with the concept as anybody would ever be allowed to go with a Disney film, essentially throwing their hands up about appealing to kiddos at all and just aiming straight for the adults who, one way or the other, were going to see this thing out of morbid curiosity.
It was funny and smart. I don’t regret having seen it. I recommend it to fans of animation generally and Disney animation history in particular, and I wish Disney would do more of what it used to do best: Create new stories.
Kenneth Lowe is the terror that quacks in the night. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.