The Rangers Return

I am a longtime fan of Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers. During the Disney Afternoon era I saw each episode dozens upon dozens of times (since they repeated every 3 months or so). When I discovered them on the French station, I was most excited as it was like watching them anew. I collected the comics and wrote in to the letters page.* Various figurines and plush still grace my shelves. And no question, getting a photo with them in their RR garb made me giddy with delight.

So into that comes the new CDRR movie released on D+. When the first trailers for it dropped, I certainly had my reservations: If they wanted to make Roger Rabbit 2, why don’t they just do that? Will the world building be poor? Aren’t the washed up actors and estranged pals tropes already heavily mined? And haven’t we already passed both peak meta and peak nostalgia pandering? Not to mention this was being made by Walt Disney Pictures, the branch of Disney that has spent the past years producing nothing but retreads, remakes, or retellings of some sort of previous IP that have often ended up being soulless, uninteresting, or even disastrous takes on them.**

That said, I also could see that if the relationship between C&D and their interactions were well handled, it could make for something compelling and powerful. If they could tap into facets of the original series with a spirit that rings true, it could be a great new take with real rescuing and ranger-ing. There could be a path forward. Maybe!

Perhaps strangely… in the end all of the above came to pass. (Potential spoilers ahead.)

I’ve watched the movie twice before writing this, to be sure I was getting the full sense of it. And where I’m left somewhat torn.

To start, there is plenty of potential here, in no small part because they (correctly) realized that it is Chip & Dale’s relationship that lies at the core of all their stories. Right from when they made their first appearance in the Donald Duck cartoons, that best friend / frenemy dynamic is what makes them endearing and such a delight. And it is what drives many of their narratives, including in the TV series. Fortunately, the writers did recognize this and made it central to the story here. There’s a lot of good compelling stuff that could come out of it.

The themes that are broached also hold great potential: notions of fame, of living in the past and/or trying to recapture former glory, insecurities, and the ongoing commodification of art. And while the “washed up actor(s)” bit feels like it’s been already used a bunch of late, it’s still an interesting framing vehicle and is used well here, with Chip and Dale each dealing with the end of the show and their subsequent breakup in a different way, with Chip withdrawn and trying to ignore/forget it while Dale overcompensates and is being maniacally gregarious.

And dovetailing (Ducktailing?) off all those is the ur-theme of the commodification of not just art but the actors themselves, and what happens to them and, even more importantly, how we treat them when they are no longer in the limelight or have gotten stale, lived past their prime, or even pushed out

Throughout Chip & Dale are mostly on-model in terms of their personality and traits and ways of being, and there are interactions throughout between Chip and Dale that ring true.

So, a great starting point with some great material to work with and dive into. Plenty of promise!

However… alas… much of the execution doesn’t live up to that promise. Things are not followed through. The movie comes off in a very rote and paint-by-numbers fashion, with few of the themes truly engaged with in any way, whether to explore them, comment on them, learn from them, make them part of the plot, or whatever. They’re on the periphery like window dressing, but with little to add to the meat and meaningfulness of the story.

Worse, the storytelling is weak and ham-handed enough such that in the end little feels truly earned. All too often the movie relies on the characters describing something rather than doing the work to have it be an integral (and palpable) part of the world/narrative. This is doubly unfortunate when it comes to the characters themselves, with them stating things rather than simply being it (such that we can see their actions and track things without them needing to tell us about it). So many of moments in the movie come off as “they are saying this now because this is the part of the movie where this has to happen”*** rather than it organically coming forth into crowning moments of heartwarming or awesome. All in all, the story and storytelling doesn’t end up having the emotional resonance it could have had.

Which leads to my other prediction/concern that came to pass: There is a constant and relentless attempt at gags that I really think hurt the story. This relentless pursuit often leaves them desperately reaching such that many of the attempted gags feel shallow or threadbare. Often gags don’t land or, at best, elicit a minor chuckle. And then thre’s how they often fixate on a particular gag for Way. Too. Long.

Worse, though, is that many of the gags are isolated and not related to the plot or to the story or to the themes. They come off as gags for the sake of gags, because that’s what they are. And thus they feel hollow and meaningless. But the ultimate nail is how often they feel the need to have the characters directly set up, call attention to, and yes worst of all, explain the gag or joke. That’s… not good. (A clear example of this is the silly putty joke. Yes, we see it. We get it. It’s quite amusing and fits in well with the world! Great! But now you’re explicitly calling attention to it, explaining it and… just why?)

Gags I would totally expect and would even totally want in a movie like this. That’s a core of the “brand”! But the movie goes overboard to a level that detracts from and takes focus away from the actual story being told. Greater development of the narrative and storytelling while relegating many of the gags to the background would create a better balance (while also eliminating the need to reach for those threadbare gags) would have allowed the themes, the characters, and their relationships to be featured, developed, and to fully resonate.

Unfortunately, the caper at the heart of the plot is also lacking. As Rescue Ranger story the caper ought to be… well, OK, to be fair the ones in the TV show were often quite a bit nonsensical. But that was the TV show, which is now a TV show inside of the movie, which means this movie is in the “real world”, and it’s also longer than a TV show… what I’m trying to say is that just as Zootopia’s caper is central to its plot, and just how Zootopia’s caper is the vehicle for all of its amazing philosophical and storytelling goodness, the caper this CDRR movie needed to be equally as solid. But! There are some noticeable holes in it: 1) the toons are preyed upon after falling behind on debts but 2) nothing really about their kidnapping seems to rely on them being in debt? Any ol’ washed up toon would seem ripe for it, even without being in dept. 3) While the bootleg thing is amusing, 4) the fact that Pete is running this operation because he got old is weird both 5) because it doesn’t appear that toon old age is much of a thing for everyone else? And 6) if he has a super machine that can perform cosmetic surgery of all kinds then 7) couldn’t he have just made himself look young again or 8) taken on a new svelte identity and started anew as the boy symbol he wants to be? 9) And, as an aside, if literal erasers are able to remove the mouths of toons then 10) shouldn’t redrawing of said toons also be a thing?

(Also, there’s an aspect to the caper that is unsettling, namely the real-world (as in the real-real-world not the in-movie-real-world – this gets confusing) history of what happened with Peter Pan’s actor, Bobby Driscoll. The short of it is that Bobby, hired at 10, was the darling of the Disney system and appeared in a number of movies plus voice acting roles. But eventually he was unceremoniously dropped by Disney and, reportedly, even banned from re-entering the studio. Things did not go well for him, and he died alone on a park bench at age 31. To make light of this and/or to mine this to create a villain to be defeated is very questionable.)

Lastly, the cameos. As expected for its premise, this movie is rife with them…. and let me say I am genuinely AMAZED and I marvel (pun semi-intended) at just how many cross-IP characters there are, not only from within Disney but from oodles of outside studios. It’s most impressive! My Little Pony! Old Coke commercials! Batman! Lego! Dragon Ball! Voltron! Loony Toons (minorly)! Those other chipmunks… (though, amusingly, Disney kinda owns them now through Fox). And even cameos from Dreamworks, which, if you know the history of Dreamworks & Disney, is an astounding thing indeed. Kudos to the team (and their lawyers) for the effort it took to get all of those. Much like Roger Rabbit (and in a slightly different vein, Wreck It Ralph), it makes for a more believable world/world building where toons are “real” to have this wide swath of characters.

And to that, most of the cameos could be background things and be totally fine. And most are, and it is mostly fine! Except where they turn the cameo into a gag… which often inherits all of the issues I noted above. That said, it would have been nicer to have a few of the cameos try to tie into a theme and/or be something specific about that character. There was an opportunity with Ugly Sonic, where it could have been great to rope in the theme ridicule and when actors/etc are unceremoniously cast out (especially since that’s the supposed theme for the main villain as well) but… no, they instead reached for a gag about his teeth and then fixate on it on not just once, but repeat the same gag a second time, and then use the idea yet a third time because that horse isn’t yet dead enough.

  • On the whole, the worldbuilding was not bad. The furgonomics and furchitecture aren’t as complete as Zootopia’s (but then again, what is?) but there was still an attempt to make at least some things appropriate for toons of all sizes to live in and among the humans. Yet, oddly, much was also not. Monty’s appt building is a fun and well-done example, but while Chip’s house is small it’s also appears to be on a regular human-sized lot in a human-sized area? So it isn’t complete. But I’m still glad they did put in some effort to make toons and their size difference feel like a real part of the “real” world.
  • The bits between Chip and his dog Milli are pawsitively adorable!
  • The animation of C&D is mostly good, and I like the difference in their styles!
  • It’s really great when C&D are doing chipmunk-y things, like when they casually climb down the outside of Monty’s apartment building.
  • It’s interesting that half the CDRR episodes they reference are real/released ones, and half were not. Was it done to pad out how long the show had been running in the movie, or were they doing it for self-convenience so they could invent episodes to fit their plot points rather than doing the work to find the elements they needed in the real cartoons?
  • For all I noted above of what didn’t work when it comes to gags, there are some killer gags that do work exquisitely, mainly because they (properly) remain in the background: the sign that reads “Wrong Side” on the edge of the train tracks, battering rams, the firework joke, “And I regretted it instantly!” (which also fits into Dale’s character), and oh wow, Lego Miserables is totally a movie I would love to see them make.
  • Though that Wrong Side gag is good, narratively and world-building-ly it’s a bit weird, because C&D go to the wrong side of the tracks and start down this shady bit before emerging onto… a shining happy main street full of people who seem oblivious to the underbelly. If it’s that shiny and popular, wouldn’t it have a more direct and less sketchy access?
  • There’s a fun cameo of two of Fat Cat’s accomplices hiding blurred in the background on Main St.
  • For whatever reason, I really loved Lumiere’s performance in this.
  • It was great that Tress MacNeille got to reprise the voice for both Gadget as well as high-pitched Chip (as she did Chip’s voice in the TV series). Ditto for Corey Burton and Dale, and C&D arguing in their old Donald Duck cartoon style was fun.
  • Interestingly, Tress’ voice for Gadget here was not exactly the same; I’m not sure if that was intentional (Gadget’s “real” voice vs her TV voice, same as C&D) or if she couldn’t quite get it again.
  • Also, never forget, that Jim Cummings is a treasure.
  • Captain Putty’s fight with Ellie is very creative and fun, making good use of his malleable body. Also, the slight twitchiness of his animation to match the stop-motion aesthetic is good.
  • I really wonder why they call the fake movies bootlegs – that’s not the term I’ve heard associated with it. Mockbusters is generally the term used for the knockoff movies used to hoodwink people at checkout lines. So… why bootleg?
  • I don’t remember anything in the CDRR cartoon ever being as toony as the cartoon bird trick. One of the neat things about the TV show was that they mostly played it straight, so why deviate from that here? Again, just like inventing new episodes it feels like lazy writing and lack of understanding or respect for the original material.
  • And to that end I’m surprised that in general there are not more allusions to the TV show. Or maybe I embarrassingly missed them, in which case I’ll need to turn in my RR cred…
  • While seeing the Ranger Plane was neat, I really wish they’d used the Ranger Wing instead. For no reason other than I think it’s a 100x cooler aircraft.
  • I am not a fan of the continued BS trope that police can’t do their job because of rules, and if they could just do whatever they want they could solve all the cases. We’ve seen very much real-world examples of just how much police often already run roughshod over rules, people, and communities.
  • I’ve noted it above, but I have to say it again… The amount of spoken exposition in this movie is downright astounding to me. It is shocking just how the writers seem to feel some odd, contestant, need to have some character or other explain every single plot point that is happening, or explain every single character development, or explain every single damn joke or gag. I’m flummoxed. “Show, don’t tell,” as the adage goes. And absolutely, as with all adages it can be taken too far, but there’s a reason why it exists as an adage.
  • And as for the jokes… if you need to spend minutes setting up the joke, and/or need to explain the joke, then perhaps you should find a better joke.
  • The ending credit sequence is pretty cool! And the remix song ain’t all that bad either.

I’m mixed about it all. As a longtime fan who would love to see an actual reboot or continuation, I think the movie’s concept is fine**** and could see some cool stuff coming out of it (including leading to said continuation of a CDRR series). There were plenty of bits and aspects that I enjoyed and seeing the team in action again was a joy. And in those moments where things truly come together, and when the movie remembers where to apply its focus, it can be great and the magic of C&D’s relationship is there.

But those moments are just moments, surrounded by a morass of lessor execution and without a strong throughline that could make them transcendent. It didn’t follow through or fulfill on its promise, and it left me wanting.

And therein lies the rub. While I didn’t mind watching it a second time I don’t foresee myself watching it a third (or more). There’s not enough there to make it worthwhile, and I can savour in my memory the good bits without subjecting myself to the greater amount of lacking bits.

* …and those letters shall forever be an… interesting and visible part of my history.

** As opposed to, and it’s important to emphasize again, Walt Disney Animation, which has produced some amazingly new and fresh and well told work.

*** Not that direct heart-to-heart talks are bad per se, but better storytelling has a mix of showing as well as the H2H talks, and you can see that things are leading to those H2H talks so that when they happen they feel genuine and are impactful.

**** Especially given that C&D’s as the stars of the TV show was already a reinvention of sorts.

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