Wednesday, May 25, 2022


I prefer movies that plainly recycle old ideas to ones that pretend they’re smarter than that impulse while doing it all the same. Take Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, a noisy, flashy, smirking experience that’s ostensibly satirical about the reboot cycle in which we’ve been caught, but is ultimately far emptier than if it just did a remake of the 90s cartoon. The premise is that, in modern day Hollywood, Disney’s animated chipmunks, Chip and Dale, are washed up actors whose glory days in the afternoon sitcom of the title are long behind them. Though they squeaked with the chirping voices of their ilk at the time, now we learn they have the wisecracking tenors of John Mulaney and Andy Samberg. Lo and behold, they get pulled into a detective story when one of their old co-stars is the latest cartoon mysteriously kidnapped. The police on the case, a claymation chief (J.K. Simmons) and his human woman partner (KiKi Layne), imply the animated rodents could help them ferret out some clues. And so the pair dust off their show’s skills for sneaking and rescuing, putting them to the test in their real world. They spelunk through a broad showbiz world, and end up bumping elbows with a handful of winking cameos from brands past and present. Jabs are made, mostly at Disney’s competition, from the weird off-brand dollar-store knockoff cartoons to some particularly nasty remarks directed toward the Paw Patrol. Alas, the mystery itself remains pretty stupid, goosed with creepy sight gags involving erasing beloved characters, is solved quickly, and then just leaves us with a bunch of hurrying around that wears out its welcome before the characters can get to the next clue.

The obvious unflattering point of comparison is Robert Zemeckis’ classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That clever noir revival was chockablock with classic characters in a story that played fair by its genre and its references. It was an actual serious mystery engaged with ideas about the state of studio Hollywood and the history of Los Angeles. It was a toon Chinatown, and every bit as inventive and imaginative and endlessly creative as one would need to be to pull it off, down to the beautifully world-weary Bob Hoskins performance as the live-action man reluctantly pulled into a web of civic and cartoon corruption. That’s better than the only thing on Rescue Rangers’ mind, other than its flat formulaic sleuthing. All it says is, gee, reboots sure are everywhere these days, and sometimes trends in animation are kinda silly. Oh, and friendship is important. It isn’t a modern family film without that. But all the above only gets you so far.

Director Akiva Schaffer, whose previous film with his Lonely Island compatriots was the incisive goof on modern celebrity culture Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, has only a few good gags here. The blending of hand-drawn and CG styles is sometimes appealing, and the parade of winking references is stuffed with surprise appearances by corporate-approved specters from other properties. (The funniest has to be Tim Robinson voicing a rival studio’s infamously poorly-designed character of recent years—so badly received in its first trailer that that film ended up delayed several months to refurbish him.) But the movie is too stupid to even realize that it’d be funnier if it acknowledged Chip and Dale’s 90s show was itself a reboot of the characters from classic Disney shorts. This movie puts them in elementary school together in the 80s, a lazier hit of nostalgia than the deeper, smarter idea so close and yet so far. (It also forgets the movie Return to Neverland happened, which fumbles the villain’s backstory.) That’s what the whole thing’s like, though. It’s a loud, violent, cynical ploy to seem smart, when it’s just a sparkle of borrowed ingenuity that’s cramped and shallow.

After all that mania for naught, the sedate and undemanding Downton Abbey: A New Era is almost welcome. This second feature film extension to the popular soapy British drama is just another jumbo-sized episode stretched out across the big screen. The show’s perspective is still all off—an early-20th-century vision of the idle rich ambling around a palatial estate while their grateful admiring servants busy themselves keeping things running, the two halves joined by mutual appreciation and a penchant for interpersonal dramas that rarely cross the streams. But there’s something seductive to the surface that suggests such a lack of class struggle is possible. This new movie finds the rich folk boating off to the south of France at the behest of a mysterious figure from their matriarch’s past, while a few stay behind to help the help keep track of a film crew that’s paying to use Downton for a month. The two plots toggle back and forth, and the whole thing is done in a bland TV style. A character walks in and makes a pronouncement. Reactions. Establishing shot. More pronouncements. And so on. It’s all a bit tedious.

At least Downton 2 is exceedingly pleasant boredom. One can doze lightly, rousing oneself on occasion to appreciate the comfortable sets, glamorous costumes, and plummy accents. All involved feel quite at home in the proceedings, as they should, especially fan favorite Maggie Smith’s cranky and regal old lady, who gets a truly great final line here. The rest feels cobbled together from borrowed bits, even its own. The characters behave more or less as you’d expect given the circumstances. The French villa is a nice enough postcard landscape. The film crew’s silent movie is suddenly changed to a talkie mid-production, leading to complications that are nothing less than Singin’ in the Rain bits played straighter. Because the whole thing is entirely overfamiliar, there’s nothing much demanding or involving about the watch, which adds to the enjoyable nothing of it all. Maybe people who’ve actually seen the show will feel more satisfaction in it. Weirdly, the closest comparisons to these movies are the original Star Trek films, a TV series continuing in theaters as an excuse to keep a chummy cast and cozy setting rolling along to fans’ delights. If that’s the case, this one’s the Wrath of Kahn to the first’s Motion Picture—now a smaller, more contained picture, concerned mostly with tending the past and explaining its own self-contained plot. It starts mid-stream with new conflicts rising, and ends with a funeral. Bring on Downton Abbey III: The Search for [Spoiler].

A better bit of Hollywood recycling lately is The Valet. It’s a charming-enough high-concept relationship comedy that’s amusing and involving enough on its own that it took me almost twenty minutes to realize it’s loosely based on a fun French farce of the same name from 2006. How’s that for a refurbish? The movie’s about a celebrity (Samara Weaving) having an affair with a married billionaire (Max Greenfield). The couple is photographed by paparazzi, but, lucky for them, a valet (Eugenio Derbez) is in the frame. To deflect suspicion, the glamorous star gets the valet to pretend to be her boyfriend. Easier said than done. The whole thing’s sitcom bright, and, though the antics could be more farcical, the production settles into an easy rhythm. It takes its time characterizing its players, and actually engages with the inherent issues of class and race and Los Angeles’ varied neighborhoods in a low-key perceptive way. And this lets the modest charms rise to the surface. Derbez, especially, is able to play a kind of sturdy decency which allows for a character who we never suspect is doing this for an ulterior motive. Of course he’s confused at first. But soon enough he genuinely wants to help this poor woman, and, when asked how much he’d like to be paid, he offers a sum that’s exactly the amount his ex-wife needs to finish her degree. Nice guy! This decency allows potentially cruel moments—a fancy restaurant full of patrons who assume he’s the waiter—to be pulled off with graceful cleverness. The movie never pushes overmuch on any of its sociological interests—though commentary on discrimination and gentrification are threaded naturally throughout. Instead, it allows the strengths of the performers to guide the scenes to mushy, warm sentiment and a gentle understanding of human fallibility. So it’s less a farce and more a cozy sitcom, but that’s still a perfectly comfortable time at the movies. And that’s not exactly an easy thing to pull off.

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