Like many a nostalgic cartoon viewer, I had mixed feelings after seeing all the trailers for the Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers film. I hadn’t exactly grown up watching the Disney Afternoon (I was a Turtles and X-Men kid), but I do recall what those shows were like. I’d also watched them fairly recently, having gotten most of them on DVD when I was a hostage at the Disney Movie Club. Hearing familiar voices come out of these characters, but not the high pitched ones, I was admittedly concerned. The direction felt… weird.
Then streaming day got me Disney+ for quite a low price. I naturally jumped, more to watch some newer animated series (I love Amphibia and Owl House) and catch up on the MCU (Eternals is underrated) than to see this. But it had popped up as brand new when I got it, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
It’s way better than it has any right to be.
The comparison I came up with while watching it is that it feels like a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At the time I happened to think this was a pretty apt and fairly original comparison, until I read the various feedback and reviews that pretty well all say precisely that.
There’s a reason. The story follows the titular chipmunks. First we see how they were famous back in the early nineties, before decisions broke their crew apart and essentially had them going their own ways. Fast forward several decades, a 3D style Dale is now running nostalgic cons while still traditionally drawn Chip is an insurance agent of some kind. They’re both called over to old pal Monterey Jack, who is of course addicted to cheese and in with his dealer.
Monty gets kidnapped, and Dale suggest they make like their television counterparts, particularly since the real police don’t seem interested (minus a human woman who had fairly recently had a major screwup involving Nickelodeon studies that’s humorously alluded to). They uncover a conspiracy involving bootlegging various toons, and I’m going to try to refrain from going too much into detail for the moment (will here in a bit).
What’s worth noting is that the animated characters work, play, and flat out live alongside their human counterparts. It’s pretty much the same way things were back in Roger Rabbit’s time; heck, the old rabbit gets a cameo (along with so many others). The movie takes advantage of Disney’s wide ownership to show all kinds of various cartoons tagging along from a plethora of series. They make mention and even have non-voiced cameos for cartoons that go beyond their purview. I’m not going to go too much into detail for that: there are YouTube videos which will delve further.
This actually seems to work, thanks to what had to be some amazing animation and technology. At a few points, there are no less than three different animated characters with different styles: claymation, 3D animation, and traditional animation, that are all interacting with a scene at a time. It’s all kinds of impressive watching the animation at work. Disney’s long been a king of animation, and they really show it here.
What also works almost too well is the humor. The film is peppered with funny bits and moments, ranging from fun little in jokes to commentary on various tropes and ideas (the heroes deconstruct who’s the bad guy using standard film logic at one point). And they toss in just about everything they can: cracks about the early 2000s animation and the uncanny valley; mentions of modern animation and how its changed; nostalgia baiting jokes. It’s done with this edge that is actually really unexpected for a Disney film. I honestly don’t know how they got away with just a PG rating: they really stretch what that entails.
The film really does feel like it’s aimed more for nostalgic adults than the whole family. Monty is literally involved with a heavy gang because of substance abuse issues; we see several classic Disney characters get abducted and at times mutilated; and the humor gets downright edgy at times. It does still feel like it respects what’s come before, but is still only too willing to mock it relentlessly.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I did come away with a more positive feeling of the film. However, there’s a certain issue that will contain spoilers that I want to bring up. If you’re wanting to go in without really knowing much about the in depth plot and possibly ending, stop reading now.
See, if you read around, there’s several people who point out that the film’s underlying message is… not great. The original Roger Rabbit used cartoons to parallel how various minorities were treated in the film industry back in its early days. There we saw how they were unfairly judged and how rights were denied to them. It wrapped this idea around a fun, fast paced film that utilized familiar characters and slapstick humor, but there was this great message at its core.
In Rescue Rangers, the message basically comes down to “if you pirate or steal our intellectual property, that’s the same as human trafficking.” No, I’m not over-exaggerating. The main plot involves finding a bootlegging community. They kidnap older toons, mutilate their appearance, and then film them in other franchises or movies. It’s obviously meant to poke fun at those bad copies of films that always crop up, but the parallel is still there and pretty on the nose.
I’ve defended Disney in the past, because I genuinely love their films and argue that they have shown themselves to be artistically important. However I won’t deny that they are very much against copyright laws and have been for a while. They’ve been fighting tooth and nail to maintain hold of certain characters, Mickey Mouse being the most prevalent. We have those laws for a reason: after a while, stories and ideas are meant to become part of the public domain. Disney has taken advantage of this: it’s why so many of their tales, particularly their older ones, are based off fairy tales. Even more recent stories like Frozen draw on that old source.
Here they’re literally saying that if you steal characters or ideas, you’re as bad as these human traffickers. This film also drops not long before Winnie the Pooh became public domain. It really feels like a sort of statement by Disney, and it’s kind of disappointing.
It’s made all the moreso because they had a really good plot idea staring them in the face the whole time:
There’s this joke in the film that Dale underwent this specific surgery to look 3D and ready for the modern age. They play on this at several points, and it seems like it’s actually relatively easy to change a cartoon’s appearance, which both makes sense and is kind of frightening at the same time (it also seems to almost make a plot hole involving one of the villains, but let’s avoid that). Dale does this to look modern and to be like Baloo, who saw a resurgence in popularity due to being redone in the Jungle Book.
See, there’s this underlying idea that we’re playing to nostalgia. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that nearly everything is getting a reboot, sequel, or spiritual successor. Nearly every franchise that had some staying power in the popular culture is being revisited. This film is literally doing just that. They advertised by saying “don’t call it a reboot, call it a comeback.”
It would have been great if the film had leaned into this more. Have it be that characters are desperate to get rebooted or to find relevance. This comes up again and again. Then have someone who’s taking advantage of it: twisting characters’ appearance or their original idea to such a degree that they lose who they are. Use Dale to comment on that, how desperate he is to switch himself to become something that people will appreciate, and how much he hungers for a taste of that same frame.
You don’t even really have to change much of the film to get that into the mix. The idea is prevalent throughout a lot of the film. It relies on nostalgia to carry some of its weight already. And they even use the whole updated surgery thing a few times to make particular points. It would make this cool meta commentary on how we reboot different ideas, but could also maintain that level of sort of reverence, the thing that makes the argument that sometimes these things deserve to be rebooted, and that something more could be made of them.
I write this as an unabashed fan of at least two rebooted franchises/properties: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and She-ra and the Princesses of Power. Both took older franchises and revamped them with more modern sensibilities. As a result, they were able to drawn on the power of that nostalgia, they used what worked out of those older properties and were able to create something new that frequently said something, or at least told good stories.
This movie already walked that ground between being reverential to its past and mocking what wasn’t working. By combining that and making the focus this idea that we like to reboot ideas and characters, that this could destroy or distort someone’s original idea, it could have really had a cool message to go along with the pretty sharp dialogue, great humor, and cool animation. Instead, it relays a message that’s frankly a bit unsettling and comes off as dangerously close to propaganda in Disney’s favor.
8 the unnerving message and a few missed opportunities hold it a bit back, but it’s still a great film